The Kansas City Zoo will open the doors to a $15 million penguin exhibit on Friday, and it is lucky to have more than 40 of the iconic birds to populate it.
When local officials approached the zoo world just last year about acquiring penguins for a new star attraction, those officials got a surprise. There is usually a three-year waiting period so other zoos have time to breed them for you.
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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 that exhibit, but getting them wasn’t going to be easy.
“We had to do a lot of calling and a lot of emailing, 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.
The call went out to sister animal parks across the country: “What can we get?”
Fortunately, the Kansas City Zoo’s rising stature and the quality of its penguin exhibit design allowed it to assemble birds from four species. 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 leads 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.”
Putney recalled his reaction when he learned that a three-year lead time for penguins is customary.
“Look, we’ve got a world-class exhibit that we’re building here,” he told Schneider, who is curator of birds at the Detroit Zoo as well as chairman of the Taxon Advisory Group for penguins. “Don’t think this is just something we’re slapping together. We’re dedicated and serious about having something that is going to be a player and a place for you to house birds.”
Without that assurance, Kansas City might have been opening a penguin exhibit this week with far fewer residents.
“They would have just laughed and said, ‘Well, good luck,’” Putney said of the zoo world.
As it turned out, Kansas City was able to score birds from animal parks in Wichita, Omaha, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Galveston.
They 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.
Beginning Friday, the public will be able to enjoy the show. At some point soon, the zoo plans to add a penguin cam to its website.
Schneider had been the man to please, and he was impressed when he saw Kansas City’s plans.
“I think this will be incredible,” Schneider said, “and very popular with the public.”
Being the newest penguin exhibit anywhere, Kansas City’s is top of the line.
“Helzberg Penguin Plaza will create another unbelievably unique experience, allowing zoo visitors to make a connection with one of the world’s most adored animals,” said zoo director Randy Wisthoff. “This world-class habitat will be as popular as Polar Bear Passage and allow the Kansas City Zoo to continue our quest to become one of the best zoos in the world.”
Kansas City has not had penguins since the 1950s. Bringing them back was one of the first things Wisthoff mentioned after he was hired from the Omaha zoo 10 years ago.
Visitors can watch them in two settings.
A 25,000-gallon indoor-outdoor pool is reserved for the temperate-zone Humboldts.
A larger pool is chilled to about 45 degrees for the kings, gentoos and rockhoppers, who like it cold. Two ice-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.
With the addition of the penguin exhibit, the zoo is also adding a specialized technician to its staff to oversee water quality there as well as in the polar bear, sea lion and otter exhibits.
“It’s one thing to have a penguin exhibit where you have to look through cloudy water to see a bird,” said Putney. “It’s a whole other thing to make it look like you’re right next to the penguins in their natural environment.”
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.”
O’Daniels has had three years of experience with temperate-zone penguins at the Pueblo Zoo in Colorado. Other keepers here were dispatched to animal parks in Omaha, St. Louis and Monterrey, Calif., to observe how they take care of penguins.
“They all have a ton of personality, and I think that’s what makes it the most enjoyable,” O’Daniels said of working with penguins. “Even among species you can see differences. The gentoos are definitely the most playful. They’re the ones you’re going to see bouncing out of the water and swimming underneath and popping out.
“The kings are much more laid-back,” O’Daniels continued. “They just kind of hang out. But they look beautiful just standing there.”
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.”
Thank the zoo tax
A smiling cartoon penguin on campaign materials helped sell voters in Jackson and Clay counties on a tax to support the Kansas City Zoo.
Two years later the real birds are here. The Helzberg Penguin Plaza points to what can lie ahead for a zoo with a dependable revenue stream.
“This is just the beginning,” said Debby Ballard, chairwoman of the Friends of the Zoo, the nonprofit organization that runs the Kansas City-owned animal park. “This is the first of a lot of things that the community can expect to see.”
A new restaurant near the penguin exhibit is scheduled to open by Memorial Day. A more natural orangutan setting is in line for 2015. A “predator canyon” for big cats, a giraffe feeding station and other projects are penciled in for coming years.
The tax paid for nearly three quarters of the $15 million penguin project. The Friends of the Zoo raised $4.1 million in private funds. Of that, the Junior League of Kansas City contributed $1 million, and the exhibit is named after a significant gift in memory of Barnett C. Helzberg Sr.
The 1/8-cent sales tax approved in 2011 will net $12.1 million for the zoo this year, nearly $1 million of which is budgeted for education programs.
The zoo is open to everyone, but residents of Jackson and Clay counties, where the tax was enacted, receive added benefits:
• Reduced admission and membership to the zoo, plus four free days a year.
• Each county has a dedicated Zoomobile that can be booked for free to bring animals and speakers to groups in the community.
• Schools in member counties get free field trips to the zoo.
• A ZooEd program, which is being supplemented to include penguins, offers free curriculums for second, fourth and eighth grades in those counties.
From Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 this year, free Zoomobiles in Clay County reached 11,240 people and in Jackson County reached 39,259 people, the zoo reported.
During the same period, Clay County students made 94 free field trips to the zoo and Jackson County students made 357.
The zoo’s education department was busy this past summer creating learning materials about penguins.
Basic penguin facts: They don’t live at the actual South Pole, but they are from the Southern Hemisphere. A penguin and a polar bear, which lives in the Northern Hemisphere, have never met in the wild.
The zoo contracted for education assistance from Wesche, who has been to Antarctica with researchers and who spoke in England last month in advance of a world conference on penguins.
“People will live their entire life without seeing a penguin in the wild,” said Wesche, explaining the importance of telling people about the animals’ world and the challenges they face.
Debra Ryder, education director at the Kansas City Zoo, said the school materials are geared to specific age groups.
“At second grade, you’re not going to tell them the climate change-global warming-water pollution story,” Ryder said. “You’re going to, hopefully, make them fall in love with penguins. As they get older and are able to handle that more complex topic of what’s happening with their environment, we’ll introduce that. Hopefully, by the time they are in high school we will call them to action.”
Docents also will use the education materials when interacting with zoo visitors, whether they live in the tax district or not.
The Friends of the Zoo still hopes to expand the tax district, but it is not clear if or when that will happen. Although the group collected enough signatures for initiative elections in Cass and Platte counties, elected officials there decided not to place the measure on their ballots.
The zoo sued in both cases. A Cass County circuit judge ruled in favor of the county, saying the law that enabled the zoo district specifically left it up to the county commission whether to hold an election. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed that judgment and the Missouri Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
The zoo this past summer agreed to dismiss the similar Platte County case.
But zoo officials remain hopeful that counties outside the tax district will come to appreciate the benefits of joining.
“We’re being very careful and we’re not being extravagant,” Ballard said of the tax district revenue. “I think once they see that we are being such good stewards and that you can actually see where the funds are going, I think other counties will get behind it.”
Species on display
• 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
• 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
• 18-24 inches, 6-11 pounds
• Nest on western coasts of Chile and Peru
• Population is classified vulnerable
• Build nests in guano