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Many get a sneak peek at KC Zoo’s penguin exhibit, minus the penguins

Updated: 2013-04-28T04:13:41Z

By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH

The Kansas City Star

The cold, spitting rain didn’t stop the large crowd swathed in ponchos and huddled under umbrellas Saturday morning at the Kansas City Zoo.

Friends of the Zoo members had flocked in for a sneak peek at the $15 million penguin exhibit that’s scheduled to open in late October — even though on Saturday the exhibit was just a big roofless hole with precast slabs of concrete walls and crunchy gravel pathways.

But by mid-morning more than 2,000 visitors were imagining the exhibit and its possibilities, with a little help from zoo docents.

That garage-sized opening in a wall above the vistors’ heads? The spot reserved for the “Penguintron,” a huge television screen that will preview what is waiting inside.

The focal point of the building-to-come will be the glass-walled home housing the superstars –– some 35 members of penguin cold-weather species — belly-sliding down icy ramps, zipping through underwater caves and waddling together beneath a wintery-looking sky.

An additional 15 warmer-weather penguin breeds will have their own condo area to frolic in (and hopefully mate in). Rising high on both sides of the exhibit hall will be a floor-to-ceiling live watery display of reef coral and another tower containing effervescent blobs of slow-motion animals called “moon jellies.” (Most people know them as jellyfish, a docent said.)

On Saturday docents walked through the crowd showing posters of the penguin breeds that will be displayed. Another docent was warming up the crowd with penguin jokes that always began, “So these two penguins waddle into a bar …”

But the zoo employee probably closest to the coming brood was wearing an African bush hat, safari pants, hiking boots and a constant grin: biologist Sean Putney, the director of living collections, who admits a passion for all things penguin.

“Penguins are amazing,” he said. “People never get tired of watching penguins.” (Or it seems, even imagining they’re watching penguins.)

He takes great delight telling the public about the four breeds coming to Kansas City: Humboldt, king, gentoo and rockhopper, “who are the rock stars of the bird world,” he said, “because their yellow swoop of feathers on their heads that look like they’re punked out.

“I have no doubt that this will be one of the most popular exhibits here, and maybe the best in the country.”

The penguin exhibit will feature spaces for sleepovers for families and scouts, wedding dinners, bar mitzvahs and corporate board meetings.

At least one other zoo employee was awed Saturday — from a distance — by the number of people who came to catch this imaginary bird’s-eye view.

Sipping coffee under an awning while trying to stay dry, zoo director Randy Wisthoff seemed ready to do his own “Happy Feet” dance.

“I made a promise in 2004 that we would bring penguins to Kansas City,” he said. “This project, and the enthusiasm from so many people, it feels good.”

Wisthoff credited the voters in Jackson and Clay counties who passed a sales tax increase. The zoo has raised $4 million in private donations, and taxes have brought in another $11 million.

“All the construction underground, like water lines, sewers, electrical lines, that’s all done,” Wisthoff said. “We’re right on track for it to open by Oct. 21st.”

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or send email to lkavanaugh@kcstar.com.

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