No wonder penguins almost drove Mr. Popper crazy.
The Maryland Zoo at Baltimore has been home to a colony of African penguins since 1967 — long enough that the zoo's on the verge of hatching its 1,000th chick. For most of that time, a moat or pool kept the penguins away from visitors. But when the penguins moved to a new enclosure a few years ago, the zoo began offering what it calls Penguin Encounters, a behind-the-scenes tour that allows visitors to meet “penguin ambassadors” and costs about $50, which supports the Maryland Zoo's breeding program for the endangered species.
The 30-minute "encounters," offered a few times a day depending on the season, are every animal lover's dream: a chance to get up close to the flightless birds without being separated by fences or barriers, and even pet one.
A group of up to eight visitors enter the penguins' carpeted home and sit on a long bench while zookeepers offer insight on the zoo's breeding program and the penguins' diet and social behavior. It can be hard to focus while there's a small free-range herd of black-and-white birds waddling around the room. They're like overstimulated toddlers, constantly distracted by anything shiny or dangling. As Sarah Talbot, an animal keeper who leads the Penguin Encounter tours, talked, a little one squeezed between her feet and plucked at her shoelaces and the folds in her cargo pants. Another disappeared under the bench and began investigating guests' shoes and pants.
The seven penguins who live in the Penguin Embassy are all female, ranging in age from 2 (Eddie) to 9-year-old Winnie. They're chosen for their temperament and comfort level around humans: Talbot says that “some of them are like dogs in a penguin suit.” And they've got plenty of personality: Eddie is the most rambunctious and curious, while the slightly older penguins, such as Lilly and Peach, are more calm and responsive to attention.
Talbot taught us about penguin grooming, called preening: Penguins need their feathers in top condition to be waterproof and windproof. Because they can't reach the feathers on their backs, they take turns preening one another with their beaks. When humans gently pet the penguins there, Talbot said, it's no different than if it were being done by another bird. “Preening is a very good thing in penguin society. If you do that, you're really paying it forward.”
After the talk, the visitors and penguins moved out into a yard next to a small pool, where the penguins continued to ham it up, moving around in duos or a larger group, snuggling up to visitors, “posing” for endless selfies and photos, and letting us preen them.
While petting is encouraged, visitors aren't allowed to pick up the penguins; touch them in the wrong place, and you'll find out why. “People always joke that they'll steal a penguin,” Talbot said, “and I'm like, You would not make it 10 feet. There'd be a lot of pecking involved.”
One of the most common questions, Talbot said, is whether visitors can feed the penguins. “You can hold a fish in front of them, but nothing's going to happen,” she replied, noting that, for example, Winnie will eat only the fish given to her by one particular keeper.
You can, however, watch the penguins feast. If you make reservations for the morning Penguin Encounter, arrive early for the daily 10:30 a.m. feeding, when dozens of birds cluster on Penguin Coast and keepers feed them whole fish by hand. The afternoon feeding is at 3:30 p.m., an hour after the day's last Penguin Encounter ends, so you'll have time to wander around the zoo before it begins.
Including the price of zoo admission, the experience actually costs $2 per minute. Is it worth it? Absolutely.
Maryland Zoo at Baltimore, 1 Safari Pl., Baltimore. 410-396-7102. Penguin Encounters take place at 11 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays through the end of February. Beginning in March, they're offered at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every weekday through the end of October. $45-$50. Penguin Encounter tickets do not include Maryland Zoo admission, which is $10 through the end of February, and $15-$19 after. Children under 2 are admitted free.