Itâs understandable why so many people love penguins. Theyâre easy to anthropomorphize with their short legs, waddling bodies, tuxedo-like plumage and appendages that resemble arms more than wings.
âItâs hard not to like a penguin, you canât not smile when you see one,â says Ric Urban, the Newport Aquariumâs curator of birds and mammals. âOnce we grab peopleâs attention with how cute they are, we throw in the conservation education. If you walk in here and meet these penguins, youâll walk out asking, âWhat can I do?â â
I certainly did. When I stepped into the penguin enclosure, nine knee-high black-and-white bodies immediately flocked around Urban, who hand-fed many of the birds as chicks. After a little while, they began to check me out, too, raising their beaks in the air to get a good look. Urban reached down, scooped up one named Green Bean and held her out for me to pet. I nearly melted.
Urban says that visitors are often surprised to learn that not all penguins require snow and ice. âAbout two-thirds are warm-weather species,â he says, âand only three species nest on Antarctica.â African penguins are the logical animal ambassadors for the aquarium since they prefer temperatures between 40 and 100 degrees.
In addition to behind-the-scenes encounters, biologist handlers regularly take the African penguins out into the public. The birds have made television appearances and were even represented in the Redsâ opening day parade.
Aquarium staff works hard to ensure the penguins are kept safe and healthy.
âThe birds are on a preventative health maintenance program, developed by biologists at the aquarium with our veterinary staff,â Urban says. They have strict travel guidelines, and he stresses that humans rarely transmit illnesses to birds and vice-versa.
If education is the aquariumâs goal, they have their work cut out for them. Popular culture is rife with penguin myths, stretching all the way back to the 1950s with the cartoon âChilly Willy,â a penguin whose friend was a polar bear. Youâd think weâd have learned by now, but in a popular 2008 television commercial, a penguin party is interrupted by some fierce polar bears and a baby penguin restores order by offering a young bear a Coca-Cola.
âOne of my biggest pet peeves is that commercial,â Urban says. âNo. 1, polar bears and penguins live on opposite ends of the world, and No. 2, they donât drink Coke.â
Urbanâs affable sense of humor balances his serious dedication to the penguins he nurtures. Heâs been in the field of animal biology for more than 30 years, eight at the Newport Aquarium where he oversees Penguin Palooza â the second most diverse collection of cold-weather penguins in the country. He started Newportâs Penguin Encounters, the first experience of its kind in the country.
âWe launched the program in 2007 with just three animals,â he says. âWe created this opportunity to get up close and personal with them. Up to 12 people at a time sit down, talk to a biologist for about 30 minutes, and possibly touch a penguin. Itâs a great experience.â Others have sought Urbanâs advice on building similar programs at their own institutions.
Proceeds from Penguin Encounters ticket sales benefit penguin conservation through the aquariumâs WAVE Foundation. WAVE sends about $10,000 each year to the South African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds to aid the rescue and rehabilitation of orphaned or oiled African penguins.
âThe public only hears about the big oil spills, but there are small ones all the time,â Urban says. âFor instance, youâll hear about 80 to 100 birds on an island that need help.â
The aquarium also books private penguin encounters. Right before my visit, a man proposed to his girlfriend surrounded by the adorable birds, supervised by aquarium employees Hannah Burke, a recent zoology graduate from Ohio State University, and Kaitlyn Whisman, a current University of Cincinnati animal biology student.
âWe really enjoy working here, especially the proposals,â Burke says. âEveryone who works here for awhile has their favorite bird.â
âThe penguins definitely have their own personalities,â Whisman says.
âSandy and Speckles, the babies, act like 2-year-olds,â Burke says. âThey love to be the center of attention. When the guy got down on one knee, he had one penguin on each side of him.â
Now what woman could say no to that? Â©
PENGUIN ENCOUNTERS at Newport Aquarium (Newport on the Levee) tickets are $25, or $20 for annual aquarium passholders. For more information, visit www.newportaquarium.com.