LINCOLN PARK — No, I didn't rent a tuxedo, but I did dress in summer black and white, the better to fit in.
Lincoln Park Zoo invited me out for one of its new Penguin Encounters this week. The first thing you find out is you don't actually waddle with the penguins. You're expected to sit quietly, let the penguins decide how close they'll get and definitely don't touch.
You're not "behind the scenes," however, but actually in the back of the Penguin Cove exhibit, where there's a sort of bench shelf that can be converted to nests underneath come winter.
Your shoes are covered with oversize rubbers, and gaiters cover your legs up to the knees, the better to avoid any nips or scratches. Open-toe shoes are forbidden, shoelaces are covered, and there's no wagging of fingers either, as the penguins might confuse that with something to eat.
"Penguins are naturally curious," said the zoo's Heather Brousalis, but she emphasized they're also predatory birds.
Zookeeper Kristin Dvorak led a couple in from around the back, and when they spotted a yellowjacket hovering nearby they immediately tried to snap and eat it.
These turned out to be Phil and Aje, and Dvorak explained they have distinct personalities. Phil, she said, is something of a rascal, labeled "The Class Clown" on the zoo's playful "All My Penguins" soap-opera-style blog. Aje is his wing man, "The Best Friend."
Zookeeper Kristin Dvorak knows the penguins and their individual personalities. (DNAinfo/Ted Cox)
"It lets people connect with these guys," Brousalis said of the blog.
In through the front door waddled Erik, another young bachelor bird, which the keepers cheered for showing a willingness and eagerness to take part.
The zoo began Penguin Encounters a month ago, and Brousalis said they've been a hit with both visitors and birds, although the penguins can still be standoffish at times — and, make no mistake, they're the ones who call the shots about how close they'll get and how active they'll be.
Still, these three seemed entirely comfortable, and Phil and Aje didn't have any qualms about waddling over to size me up.
From a human perspective, it's a bit strange to look up and find people on the other side of the glass.
The free admission zoo charges $60 for the Penguin Encounter privilege, $50 for members, but it also offers a connection with an endangered species and a learning experience as well.
These are African penguins, also known as black-footed penguins or even jackass penguins, for the sound they make, which has been compared to the braying of a donkey. They live on the southern tip of Africa, actually quite close to humans in some areas. The Penguin Cove exhibit is modeled on the terrain at Boulders Beach, a penguin enclave in the suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa.
The species has dwindled from about 140,000 breeding pairs 60 years ago to just 25,000 today, and they were even more numerous 100 years ago. Brousalis said, however, they typically build their nests in guano, which became harvested as a fertilizer, removing their habitat.
"You have to understand the story to understand what you can do to help," Brousalis said.
To that end, the Save Animals From Extinction campaign has raised $150,000 to help, most recently in the form of tubelike dog crates halved lengthwise and placed in the ground to create something resembling a penguin nest. There's one actually placed in the Penguin Cove exhibit.
Penguin Encounters continue through October, then they'll resume in April. So consider the invitation extended: black tie optional, close-toed shoes required, and the penguins get to pick whom they'll dance with and just how entertaining they'll be.