Get up close and personal with this team of penguins at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary | Animal Issue | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Get up close and personal with this team of penguins at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary

“Our birds are ambassadors for their wild counterparts.”

Brooklyn Magill of Ellwood City feeds a penguin at the National Aviary.
Brooklyn Magill of Ellwood City feeds a penguin at the National Aviary.

Penguins are huge around these parts. And while I’ve heard many a hockey fan say how cute Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are, they’ve got nothing on Goldie and Slippy.

During a recent penguin-feeding encounter at the North Side’s National Aviary, Goldie milled around the legs of the Aviary’s penguin-care team, like a cat looking for a scratch behind the ear. Slippy, whose name was selected by local voters in a name-that-penguin contest, hung back a bit waiting for someone to toss him his lunch. Eventually, a fish got thrown his way.

But it wasn’t thrown by a member of the Aviary staff. The two penguin-feeders on this day were members of the general public, who were taking part in the zoo’s new private penguin-feeding encounter. For $100, plus a general admission ticket (Aviary members receive free admission), participants age 16 and over are given a pair of rubber waders and boots, a short introductory course on proper penguin-feeding etiquette and a three-legged stool. They are then taken inside the Aviary’s Penguin Point exhibit, which houses 20 African penguins.

A penguin-team member explains the different types of fish to the participants and which penguins like which type of fish. Basic protocol is to touch the bird lightly on the beak with the fish and when the penguin begins eating, hold the fish until the bird has it under control. Others, like Slippy, hung back on some rocks and caught most of the fish that were thrown their way.

Abby Kuwik, a member of the feeding team, explained that penguins are a lot like humans when it comes to eating. “Some of my friends like to cut up their pizza and some of my friends like to eat it whole,” she explains. “So, what we do is we adjust each penguin’s feeding needs. Some penguins like to have their fish thrown to them,” because they don’t like to get in the mob of penguins who rush the feeders.

The feeding process is interesting to watch. The penguin-team members advise which fish to hand a particular penguin — each bird wears a band on its arm with its name — or to toss gently. The penguins won’t necessarily take the fish that’s being handed to them. Many of the birds turned their heads away, and some even gestured with what you would swear was a head shake like a baby trying a lemon for a first time. 

The feeding, which can be viewed by the public around the encounter area, lasts roughly 20 minutes. One by one, the birds walk away until it’s time for their next feeding. There’s one feeding at 1 p.m. and another at 4 p.m., and private feeding encounters are available at both times. The aviary also offers another penguin encounter, at $40 per person for up to eight people, to spend about 30 minutes with the penguins — who themselves decide if they want to participate — asking questions, taking photos and touching the penguins. And these are just two of the encounters offered by the Aviary. 

Robin Weber, senior director of marketing and communication at the National Aviary, says the encounters “are a way to learn about a species that’s critically endangered.” According to information from South Africa’s Kruger National Park, the population of these birds has declined by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years, mostly due to commercial fishing off Africa’s coast. That’s why properly educating the public about their plight is so crucial.

“We don’t treat our animals like pets; you don’t pet them like a dog,” Weber says. “When you get a chance to touch a penguin, it’s so you can feel their feathers and understand how its feathers help it live in its natural climate. It’s for an educational reason.”

“These encounters are another chance to provide more in-depth information,” she says. “But more importantly, what we’re trying to do as a whole is connect people to the natural world. When people have an up-close encounter with one of our animals, it gives them a chance to connect personally and to identify with that species. Our birds are ambassadors for their wild counterparts.”

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