Mesker Park Zoo Opens “More than a Bathtub” for New Humboldt Penguin
Millions of Humboldt penguins once lived and thrived along the rocky coastlines of La Isla Grande de Chiloé, located in southern Chile. The population of these penguins has dwindled into the thousands due to overfishing and climate change.
The Penguins of Patagonia at the Mesker Park Zoo tell the story of the Humboldt species in an exhibit that has been years in the making. The penguins are under threat of extinction. They are currently classified as vulnerable.
To connect guests with the penguins, creating an engaging exhibit is crucial. Through connections formed between people and penguins, there is hope that the Humboldt population can endure.
“It’s made to feel like you’re immersed in the Chile coastline where you would see these penguins. We want the penguins to feel like they live there, and we want people to feel like they went there,” said Lauren Norvell, the conservation education curator at the zoo.
Photo: Jordan McQuiston
In Chile, Humboldt penguins dwell along a steep, rocky terrain that boarders a temperate forest. They nest on the coast, while feeding in the water.
The exhibit, which opened on October 27th, portrays a similar image. There are plenty of rocks for the penguins to jump from into the water. They have room to swim and display natural behaviors.
“It took many, many years and a lot of fundraising,” said Norvell, “the plan was developed with the whole zoo staff, the managers at the zoo, and the board.”
The addition of this exhibit goes to show that the zoo is an important place in Evansville and its citizens.
“It’s the biggest exhibit that Mesker has open to date. It’s a sign of the growth of the zoo and what it can do for the community. And there’s just nothing else like it in our community at all. It’s quite a gift and a treasure,” said Norvell.
Facts about the species are displayed on plaques throughout the exhibit. One of the plaques highlights preening, or the cleaning of feathers, which is a behavior that will be observed by guests year-round.
“This exhibit and these penguins are very important to advocate for Humboldt penguins and advocate for clean oceans and a clean environment. They’re very important because they bring a lot to our community zoo,” said Norvell.
The 14 Humboldt penguins arrived in Evansville from zoos that are all over the United States as part of a species survival plan (SSP).
“All of the zoos in the country work together to manage animals that are in a SSP. What we’re trying to do is make sure that we are managing the population that’s in captivity well enough, so that they can be genetically diverse and genetically viable, so that if there were very few penguins in the wild, we would have a genetically diverse population in captivity to reintroduce them to the wild,” said Norvell.
Photo: Jordan McQuiston
The Humboldt penguin species is at risk. “Through overfishing and climate change their numbers have plummeted from the millions in the previous entry to thousands now,” said Paul Bouseman, the zoo’s deputy director.
Pollution from Evansville has a direct impact on the waters off the coastline of Chile where the Humboldt penguins reside. Plastics that are ingested by penguins and other marine life can lead to their death through suffocation and starvation.
“Everything that goes into our watersheds here in the Midwest ends up in the ocean eventually,” said Bouseman.
The zoo created the Humboldt penguin exhibit to share their story and inform people about the environmental issues affecting these penguins.
“For people to want to solve a problem, you have to show the person that they are connected. Having the animals here, as those ambassadors, and to create those bonds between people and wildlife that we do in zoos, we really feel that that’s essential to changing behaviors,” said Bouseman.
Through this exhibit, the penguins can act as they would in their natural habitat.
“Humboldt penguins will spend time on land. They’ll bob at the surface of the water. They’ll dive. They can swim very quickly and for long distances. We designed our exhibit to have the potential for the penguins to do all those behaviors,” said Bouseman.
The penguins have space to swim freely, jumping in and out of the water. Guests can observe these behaviors through the exhibit’s multilevel viewing areas.
Bouseman assisted in the development of the exhibit’s design. “I do focus on making great places for animals to live, and we want them to have habitats that promote a wide range of natural behaviors, and we certainly included a lot of that in our penguin project.”
The new exhibit attracts more guests, promotes natural penguin behavior, and practices sustainability efforts.
“It’s state of the art. It has the latest technology and the highest industry standards for zoo exhibits,” said Norvell.
Photo: Jordan McQuiston
The exhibit has a geothermal heating and cooling system, designed to cool the water temperature in the summer and warm it in the winter. The water temperature adjusts based upon the temperature at the bottom of the zoo’s lake.
“It’s a great way to practice what we preach, as far as being sustainable in our own operations and in hopes of making a better world for wildlife and for people that live here,” said Bouseman.
The exhibit was also designed to protect future generations of Humboldt penguins. Builders added a space for penguins to nest and raise chicks.
Ensuring the survival of this penguin species is a critical mission for zoos across the country and in Evansville.
“Central to all of this is the welfare of the animals and getting this exhibit right for them,” said Bouseman.
In addition to the health and well-being of the penguins, safety measures are in place throughout the exhibit for zoo staff. “We have to very much think of our staff and their safety in terms of providing handrails, safe places to get in and out of pools, and safe places to tie off when they’re on elevated rock work. We really think a lot about how our staff can use that space,” said Bouseman.
The efforts of Mesker Park Zoo are essential to spreading awareness about the continuation of the Humboldt penguins.
“The animals at the zoo are there to tell a story to increase the publics connection with these animals. A lot of people are not going to see a Humboldt penguin in real life on their own, so zoos are a critical vehicle to bring animals to the public where they can access them and can see them and connect with them,” said Norvell.
When kids, teenagers, and adults walk past the Penguins of Patagonia, they see the coasts of La Isla Grande de Chiloé and penguins diving through the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The zoo hopes that people will be called to action when they hear about the risks the Humboldt penguins face.
“Once they connect with the individuals that are there, only then can they connect with the species. And that’s how you convince people to save species, because they’ve had a connection with them before,” said Norvell.