LINCOLN PARK — Press the tuxedo for your next visit to Lincoln Park Zoo, that is if you plan to mingle in style with the penguin elite.
The zoo has added what it calls Penguin Encounters, in which small groups of visitors can actually mix with African penguins in the Penguin Cove exhibit.
The zoo makes it clear that it's not exactly swimming with the dolphins, and there'll be no high fives with penguin flippers. The flightless birds from the southern tip of Africa "voluntarily participate in these encounters and are accompanied by a keeper," the zoo says. "While penguins may choose to approach guests, they may also choose to leave the encounter area.
"The experience does not include touching or feeding the penguins for the health and safety of the animals," the zoo adds, "but guests have the unique experience to be inside Lincoln Park Zoo’s African penguin exhibit."
And the penguins' sense of security is paramount.
“Providing choice is critical to promoting animal welfare,” said Curator of Birds Sunny Nelson. “Guests are entering our African penguins’ habitat, and the birds can spend time interacting in the space however they choose."
It follows in the webbed footsteps of Brookfield Zoo, which also added face-to-face penguin encounters this year. It's not cheap at the otherwise free-admission zoo. Registration is $60, $50 for zoo members. Kids must be at least 6 years old, and those 6-13 must be accompanied by an adult. But a complimentary photo of the encounter group is included. At most there will be two sessions a day, set for 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
Those interested can register online 24 hours in advance, but the zoo will begin day-of, onsite registration next Wednesday.
Penguin Encounters will be suspended Oct. 31 and are expected to resume April 1.
The zoo pitches it as a way to connect with an endangered species, as African penguins have dwindled from about 140,000 breeding pairs 60 years ago to 25,000 today.
"African penguins are fascinating to encounter and ignite a sense of awe and wonder and a connection with wildlife,” said Dana Murphy, the zoo's vice president for learning and community engagement. “This experience will help us harness that connection into caring. We hope guests will be inspired to take actions to save this endangered species."
The zoo opened the new Penguin Cove exhibit only last year. It has also fostered a connection with the birds through an "All My Penguins" blog debuting this week and casting the animals as characters.
African penguins are also found in Namibia, and are also known as black-footed penguins for the color of their feet. They're one of 18 penguin species found worldwide.