Play with penguins

You can get up close and relatively personal with penguins at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium. By registering before visiting the aquarium, guests can sit with and even pet some of these cute aquatic creatures.

Shedd Vice President of animal collections and training Ken Ramirez answers guest questions while trainer Lana Vanagasem quietly talks to a Magellanic Penguin

Shedd Vice President of animal collections and training Ken Ramirez answers guest questions while trainer Lana Vanagasem quietly talks to a Magellanic Penguin

The program began midsummer 2010 as a training aid, according to Ken Ramirez, executive vice president of animal collections and training.

“We want them to be accustomed to strangers,” Ramirez said. He explained that the penguins saw their trainers daily but not their veterinarians.

The surprise to strangers is that the encounter room is warm, not wear-the-coat cold. Visitors are told that the Shedd’s penguins come from moderate climes.

On a recent Penguin Encounter, marine mammal trainers Lana Vanagasem and Maris Muzzy brought up two 14 month-old Magellanic Penguins. Named for Ferdinand Magellan, the penguins typically are found around Argentina and Chile.

Shedd trainer Maris Muzzy and her Magellanic Penguin are both curious about the guests at the other end of the room

Shedd trainer Maris Muzzy and her Magellanic Penguin are both curious about the guests at the other end of the room

Born and being raised at the Shedd,  these two penguins started out a bit shy. “They are wary of potential predators,” Ramirez said. But he added that they are also naturally curious.

To protect from sharp beaks curiously exploring our feet we donned high black rubber boots. We were also told the penguins were used to watches but were attracted to shiny, dangling objects so other jewelry was best kept away from a penguin’s reach.

When the penguins seemed comfortable with strangers in the room, the trainers moved the birds from their laps to an Astroturf type of floor covering that was scattered with colorful toys.

The penguins seemed more interested in their guests than their toys

The penguins seemed more interested in their guests than their toys

Just as good as watching the birds check out the playthings and our benches, was the chance to pet them. Visitors don’t touch the penguins until the trainers hold them and give the OK.

The “penguin encounter” lasted about 30 minutes, not counting hand-washing and boot preparation or instruction time which added another half hour. Our group would gladly have spent more up close time but it was an experience we won’t forget.

To add to the experience, some of us went downstairs where the penguins swim and hang out behind a glass enclosure.

Extend the penguin experience by enjoying them in their Shedd habitat

Extend the penguin experience by enjoying them in their Shedd habitat

Opposite the real thing is a wall with pictures and identification of what kind of penguins are at the Shedd.

We did not have any children in our group but if we did they probably would have enjoyed the penguin costumes they could have put on opposite the enclosure.

Penguin costumes hang opposite the habitat, ready to be tried out by humans

Penguin costumes hang opposite the habitat, ready to be tried out by humans

Penguin Encounter switches from daily to weekends and holidays after Labor Day. Cost is $25 a person. Children must be at least age 4 to attend and ages 4-10 must be accompanied by an adult. For more information or to register call 312-692-3355 and visit Shedd Aquarium Extraordinary. The Shedd Aquarium is on the Museum Campus opposite Soldier Field at 1200 South Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605

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