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With help from Wichita, penguins arrive to delight KC zoo visitors

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at 7:42 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, at 4:44 p.m.

Species on display

King penguins

• About a yardstick tall, second-largest penguin, 30-45 pounds

• Nest on sub-Antarctic islands

• Population at low risk in the wild

• Don’t build nests but incubate eggs on top of their feet, under their bellies

Gentoo penguins

• About 30 inches tall, third-largest penguin, 10-14 pounds

• Nest on Antarctic peninsula and islands

• Population is nearing threatened classification

• Fastest underwater swimming bird at more than 22 mph

Southern rockhopper penguins

• 18-23 inches tall, 4-8 pounds

• Nest on sub-Antarctic islands and south temperate regions of Indian and Atlantic oceans

• Population is classified vulnerable

• Have spiky yellow plumes

Humboldt penguins

• 18-24 inches, 6-11 pounds

• Nest on western coasts of Chile and Peru

• Population is classified vulnerable

• Build nests in guano

The Kansas City Zoo will open the doors to a $15 million penguin exhibit on Friday – and is lucky to have more than 40 of the iconic birds to populate it.

When officials here approached the zoo world just last year about acquiring penguins for their new star attraction, they got a surprise. There is usually a three-year waiting period so other zoos have time to breed them for you.

Uh-oh.

The penguin exhibit was to be the first big fruit of a zoo taxation district approved by voters in Jackson and Clay counties. The zoo had to have some penguins to put in it. But that wasn’t going to be easy.

“We had to do a lot of calling and a lot of e-mailing, just seeing what’s available out there and asking for a lot of favors,” said Sean Putney, director of living collections at the Kansas City Zoo.

Kansas City put out the call to its sister animal parks across the country: “What can we get?”

Fortunately, the zoo was able to get four species of penguins, including three Humboldt penguins from Wichita. The exhibit will open with six king penguins as tall as yardsticks, four punk-haired rockhoppers, 23 acrobatic gentoos and about a dozen fair-weather Humboldts.

The new exhibit can accommodate twice that number.

“It’s not as many as they ideally would like to have,” said Tom Schneider of the Detroit Zoo, who chairs the committee that oversees penguin matters. “It will take a few years to get the population the way they want it.”

“We took what was available right now,” said Andrea O’Daniels, an animal supervisor at the Kansas City Zoo and team leader in the penguin area. “We’ll still work to get more.”

Penguins from zoos in Wichita, Omaha, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Galveston were introduced last week to the new exhibit, where they soon began darting and zooming underwater, making the 100,000-gallon pool look like a busy airport without traffic control.

The moves are not unusual. Zoos across the country accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums are managing animals, often those threatened or endangered, to increase their numbers and boost their genetic diversity. They do so through more than 300 Species Survival Plan programs, 129 of which are represented at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

One of the three penguins that moved from Wichita to the Kansas City Zoo came from the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Another originally came from Philadelphia. And one was born at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

Twenty-three Humboldt penguins remain at the Cessna Penguin Cove at the Sedgwick County Zoo.

Penguins personified

Kansas City has not had penguins since the 1950s. Bringing them back was one of the first things zoo director Randy Wisthoff mentioned after he was hired from the Omaha zoo 10 years ago.

Beginning Friday, the public can see Kansas City’s penguins. At some point soon, the zoo plans to add a live “penguin cam” to its website.

Schneider was impressed when he saw the plans for Kansas City’s new exhibit.

“I think this will be incredible,” he said, “and very popular with the public.”

Visitors can watch them in two separate settings. There is a 25,000-gallon indoor-outdoor pool for the temperate-zone Humboldts.

The larger pool is chilled to about 45 degrees for the kings, gentoos and rockhoppers who like it cold. Two snow-making machines add to their comfort.

Behind the scenes, a life-support system constantly hums to keep the water clean and clear for optimum viewing. That’s the big reason this is the most expensive single exhibit ever built at the Kansas City Zoo, surpassing the $11 million polar bear display nearby.

Zoo officials are confident the public will be wowed. Who doesn’t like penguins? There’s a reason they are whimsical icons in popular culture.

“A penguin is an animal that, when it moves, when it interacts with others of its species, it’s very easy to personify,” said Gary Wesche, a Kansas City science teacher working with the zoo to develop a penguin curriculum for schools.

“It looks like a human doing what a human would do if it was in a penguin suit,” Wesche continued. “You watch them interacting with each other and their young. It looks like they’re hugging. It looks like they’re kissing. It looks like they’re holding flippers.”

Visitors will notice that Kansas City’s penguins are tagged with color-coded bands on their flippers. That’s so the keepers can tell them apart.

The penguins are hand-fed three meals a day of fish laced with vitamins or medications. Keepers need to know how much each bird eats to watch for signs of illness or impending molting.

It is unusual for zookeepers to have such close contact with animals.

“They’re definitely feisty and they will bite you,” O’Daniels said. “I have several bruises on my arms already.”

Contributing: Deb Gruver of The Eagle

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com.

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