The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Penguins toured an aquarium that closed because of coronavirus concerns. The videos were exactly what we needed.

Chicago's Shedd Aquarium let their penguins roam around a number of exhibits March 16 after they temporarily closed their facilities amid coronavirus concerns. (Video: Shedd Aquarium via Storyful)

With much of Chicago under self-imposed quarantine, it was time for the penguins to take over.

The inquisitive birds wandered down the darkened hallways of Shedd Aquarium, checking out exhibits about the Amazon rainforest and southeast Asian streams. They inspected giant tanks holding stingrays, dolphins and red-bellied piranhas, turning their heads to look in every direction like miniature tuxedo-clad security guards. Then, they waddled over to the empty information desk, ready to assume the job of greeting visitors whenever the crowds returned.

That might take a while: With 105 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Illinois, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) has banned gathering in groups of more than 50 people, and most of Chicago’s museums have opted to close.

But the absence of visitors on Monday had an upside for three of the Shedd’s rockhopper penguins, whose keepers took them on a “field trip” so that they could explore the usually bustling aquarium for themselves.

“While Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium may be closed to the public, animal care staff and veterinarians are onsite 24/7,” a spokesman said in a Monday email to The Washington Post. “Without guests in the building, caretakers are getting creative in how they provide enrichment to animals — introducing new experiences, activities, foods and more to keep them active, encourage them to explore, problem-solve and express natural behaviors."

To the delight of those stuck at home, the aquarium documented the penguins’ expedition on social media. Amid an onslaught of anxiety-provoking news, many experienced a rare moment of joy upon seeing Wellington, a 30-year-old rockhopper penguin who is one of the oldest in the United States, seemingly overcome with excitement.

“A much needed bright spot with everything else going on in the world,” wrote one of the thousands of people thanking the aquarium on Facebook.

With their doors closed for the time being, many zoos and aquariums are encouraging online visits instead. Without ever leaving the house, frazzled parents and lonely telecommuters can watch Zoo Atlanta’s pandas munch on bamboo, check in with giraffes at the Houston Zoo, and keep close tabs on the beluga whales at the Georgia Aquarium. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s webcams capture live footage of everything from sea otters to leopard sharks, while Baltimore’s National Aquarium offers virtual visitors the opportunity to relax by watching tranquil jellyfish float by.

Starting this week, the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is hosting virtual animal shows for children whose schools have shut down, though adults may also find them enjoyable. Monday’s educational safari in Cincinnati featured Fiona the Internet-famous hippopotamus, who snapped her fearsome jaws and devoured squash, a cucumber and a head of lettuce. Tuesday’s live stream will feature Rico the porcupine, the zoo said.

Meanwhile, animals accustomed to unending streams of tourists are newly free to roam, and getting a rare opportunity to see what it’s like on the other side of the glass.

On Monday, the Toronto Zoo posted a photo of a donkey and a polar bear — safely separated by protective barriers — giving each other quizzical looks as keepers led hoofed mammals on a tour of the zoo. That same day, the Fort Worth Zoo shared a video of Hector, a Patagonian mara, getting to meet three river otters. Both species seemed equally intrigued by the other.

“If this is the latest trend then I’ll get behind it,” one person responded.

Allyson Chiu contributed reporting.