Donna's Detroit: Zookeepers study penguins to ensure that their dazzling new $30 million habitat will meet their individual needs

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When the Detroit Zoo’s Penguinarium opened in 1968, it was a state-of-the-art facility, the first of its kind in the country. It featured a circular design that allowed penguins to walk or swim continuously without ever encountering a wall.

But “state of the art” is a rapidly moving target and on April 18 the zoo will unveil its new $30 million bull’s-eye — the largest penguin facility in the world.

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is going to be an immersive experience for zoo-goers, who enter into a 4-D environment simulating the look and feel of an Antarctic expedition ship churning through ice-pocked water. Two transparent tunnels under the water feature will allow visitors to observe penguins gliding gracefully above them, the way they can see polar bears and seals swimming in the zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life exhibit.

But the zoo’s 83 penguins probably won’t notice that their new home is shaped like a tabular (flat-topped) iceberg or that humans may get a little seasick from the realistic special effects.

They’re going to be too busy being penguins.

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Detroit Zoo staff studied penguins – in the zoo and in the wilds of Antarctica – to determine how to make their state-of-the-art Polk Penguin Conservation Center, opening April 18, the best penguin habitat it can be. Donna Terek

While the zoological society’s staff were imagining a unique visitor experience, they were equally focused on creating an environment that takes into account the ways that penguins interact with their environment and with each other.

This was the main concern of Dr. Stephanie Allard, director of animal welfare at the zoo. “One of the amazing features of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center is the focus on the birds,” she said.

“You have to really think about all the different features and factors that go into the life that they lead. And then you have to think about how you can re-create that and then assess it on an individual level.”

So the zoo staff studied the penguins closely to evaluate how the birds used their environment. Some staff, including Allard, traveled to Antarctica to observe them in their natural surroundings, “to really see the challenges that they’re faced with,” she said.

Allard believes that, despite the fact that penguins live in flocks, their conservators must look at each bird and its needs as an individual.

“Just like people experience things differently, so do animals,” she said.

“One of the the things we learned from studying the penguins closely in the current Penguinarium is they like to swim at different times of day, for example. Some are early dippers, others like to swim throughout the day. We wanted to see which parts of their environment (are) important to each one of them.”

One conclusion: Give them access to more water. Penguins can spend up to 80 percent of their lives in the water. The new center will have 325,000 gallons of 37-degree water, 10 times more than their current home. It will be the deepest penguin aquatic environment anywhere outside their native Antarctic waters, allowing them to dive 25 feet below the surface.

In considering the best experience for the birds, the zookeepers have been “really thinking about the kinds of features that are important to the different penguin species, thinking about different substrates that they’re going to walk on, different elevations,” Allard said.

“If you think about something called a rockhopper penguin, you might imagine that they’re into rocks. They use them to lie on, to stand on but also to build their nests. So these kinds of features are going to be incredibly important.

“But the water, I would say, is going to be the biggest and most drastic change they are going to experience. Ten times the amount of water is going to give them so many opportunities to exhibit these wonderful species-typical behaviors.”

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Penguins up close

Recently, I was allowed to visit behind the glass at the current penguin house to try to fathom the environment from the birds’ perspective.

Penguins are fascinating, sometimes funny, sometimes even a little goofy to our eyes. Some of them were fascinated by my video camera and its tasty strap. Charismatic is not a word I’d think of to describe them, but that’s exactly the term zookeeper Lindsay Ireland, 33, uses when she talks about her quirky charges.

“Some of them are very outgoing,” she said. Her favorites change regularly, especially since they outgrow their interest in humans once they hit puberty. Almost all of the birds were given names at birth, like Finn or Pickles.

“Usually when I talk to the public they think we go in and play with the birds,” she laughed. “But it’s not going in and cuddling and playing with them every day. It’s a very labor-intensive job and zookeepers are very educated. We know a lot about our animals.” Ireland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in zoology.

“I’ve known some of these birds for 15 years,” said zookeeper Mike Puppan, 37, who went on the latest expedition of zoo staff and donors to Antarctica to observe penguins in the wild. The birds live 15 to 20 years in the wild and longer in captivity. “I feel close … but we never treat them as pets,” he said. “We consider them wild creatures.”

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Who’s who at the zoo

The Detroit Zoo has individuals from four of the 17 penguin species: king, gentoo, macaroni and rockhopper.

King penguins are the second largest species; emperors (the ones featured in “March of the Penguins”) are the largest. The kings stand about three feet tall with flannel-gray feathers on their backs and white breasts. Orange patches accent their black heads and the lower halves of their beaks.

“The kings have more of a flock mentality where they move together throughout the habitat,” said Ireland. “They hang out with each other more than they would interact with us.”

The gentoos are about 30 inches tall and have white eye patches. The third largest species of penguin, they’re very fast swimmers, moving up to 22 mph in the water.

The macaronis and rockhoppers are two of six crested penguin species. The macaronis have a spiky uni-brow of thin, long orange feathers that give them a punk rock vibe, while the rockhoppers’ yellow crests are more conservative with a thin line of yellow feathers above each eye.

So, what’s with the name macaroni? Back in 18th-century England “macaroni” was slang for a fop or dandy. When explorers first encountered the penguins with the flamboyant feathers around 1837, they called them macaronis.

Special events

“An Evening in Antarctica,” an April 9 fundraising gala, is sold out. Fittingly for the penguin center, it’s black tie.

The zoo will host a presentation on Gentoo penguins by world-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser on April 10 at 6 p.m. at the Detroit Zoo’s Ford Education Center. Tickets are $25 on the zoo’s website.

In addition, zoo members can enjoy after-hours forays into the new penguin habitat April 18-21, April 25-28 and May 2-5 from 5 to 8 p.m. with timed entry. To become a member, visit detroitzoo.org/support/membership/. People who contribute $1,000 to the Polk Penguin Conservation Center will be listed on a donor wall inside the building.

More Donna's Detroit columns at detroitnews.com/donnasdetroit

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