Kansas City was basically winging it with early attempts to keep penguins alive in the 1940s and ’50s.
The parks department would spend a few hundred dollars for a handful of birds. Kids would get excited, suggesting names for them. Then the birds died.
“A doctor from the Smithsonian claims we keep them too clean,” zoo director William T.A. Cully said on one such occasion. “But what else can we do in the children’s zoo?”
All the early attempts involved temperate-climate penguins. The first four got the royal treatment when they arrived from New York at Kansas City Municipal Airport in July 1946. A newspaper called them “their right laughable excellencies.” They cost $275 a pair.
The zoo placed them in a former duck pond and fed them smelt. Hundreds of kids from as far as Nebraska submitted names. Thirteen-year-old Dick Lamb of 4215 Spruce Ave. won with Pat, Mike, Molly and Polly.
The penguins even made a hospital visit to cheer up a 6-year-old leukemia patient.
But by fall the birds were dead of their own disease, aspergillosis, which affects the respiratory system.
The zoo tried again in 1952. Linda Moore, 9 and recovering from polio, 133 N. Quincy Ave., won the naming contest this time: Gus, Gertie, Wilbur and Wendy.
Zoo officials panicked when the penguins swelled up and their feathers fell out. But everyone relaxed after a long-distance call to an expert at the Bronx Zoo told them the birds were molting.
Still, those birds did not last long either.
In 1958, park officials ordered more penguins. One was stolen from the zoo and later found in the pond at Loose Park. It took zookeepers using a rowboat four hours to catch it.
In 1959, the zoo designated a penguin house with a ventilating fan. There was discussion among park commissioners about whether to air-condition the house, but it was decided not to spend $2,600 on $900 worth of penguins.
The zoo installed cold water sprays instead. But those birds also died.
Kansas City was not alone in having a poor penguin track record. Scholarly papers have documented that early attempts to keep them in captivity were often unsuccessful because keepers didn’t understand the birds’ needs.
In recent decades, however, zoos have made great strides in reducing penguin mortality, said Tom Schneider, chairman of a North American penguin advisory group.
Though each species is different, penguins typically live 15 to 20 years in the wild and can live a little longer in captivity.
“They live a long time,” Schneider said. “The husbandry is pretty good.”