Coronavirus Pandemic Creates an Opportunity for Penguins at Zoos and Aquariums

A Magellanic penguin takes a tour of the dolphins exhibit at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. (Photo: © Shedd Aquarium)

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is wreaking havoc around the world, forcing millions of people to shelter at home (including many with young children, like the 2-year-old roaring outside the door as I write this). For a few penguins at zoos and aquariums, however, the virus is having a very different effect.

Like many businesses that draw crowds, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago is currently closed to help limit the spread of the virus. And while the aquarium isn't scheduled to reopen until at least March 29, that only applies to human visitors. The pandemic may be an enormous challenge for our species, but it's turning into a unique opportunity for some penguins at Shedd and elsewhere.

Veterinarians and animal-care staff at the Shedd Aquarium are still working full-time, and many are flexing their creativity under these novel circumstances.

penguin and dolphin at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago
Caretakers are finding creative ways to entertain and enrich wildlife during the shutdown. (Photo: © Shedd Aquarium)

"Without guests in the building, caretakers are getting creative in how they provide enrichment to animals — introducing new experiences, activities, foods and more to keep them active, encourage them to explore, problem-solve and express natural behaviors," the aquarium explains in a statement.

This has involved "field trips" for some penguins at the aquarium, in which they leave their own exhibit, walk around the public areas and check out some of the other animals. That includes the penguin-dolphin encounter pictured above, as well as a 32-year-old rockhopper penguin named Wellington, who was reportedly intrigued by Amazonian freshwater fish like red-bellied piranhas and black-barred silver dollars.

"Those same fish seemed equally interested in Wellington," the aquarium added, "meaning the penguins aren't the only animals receiving enrichment from these pop-up field trips."

Wellington went on other adventures, too, including a visit to the aquarium's otter exhibit. As the Shedd Aquarium pointed out, 32 is an advanced age for rockhopper penguins, so Wellington is particularly lucky to go on excursions like this:

The penguins who got to explore the Shedd Aquarium also included Edward and Annie, a bonded pair of rockhopper penguins. Pictured below in the aquarium's rotunda, they've bonded with each other for the spring nesting season — and as some commenters noted on Twitter, their foray through the aquarium seemed like a nice romantic date.

The Shedd Aquarium penguins also aren't the only ones getting a chance to capitalize on the closures. Since the adventures of Shedd's penguins have gained attention on Twitter, some other zoos and aquariums have followed suit. At the Saint Louis Zoo, for example, Humboldt penguins recently had a chance to explore the facility and meet some of the other animals.

"Yesterday, our Humboldt penguins (Pedro, Fernando, Chirrida, Guapo, Mona and Marco) took a field trip from their outdoor habitat to inside Penguin & Puffin Coast," the zoo said Wednesday. "They got to visit the Gentoo, king and rockhopper penguins, as well as the horned and tufted puffins.

"There was a quick stop at the gift shop (which was closed) and the offices upstairs before they headed back to their outdoor habitat," the zoo added.

Aside from the obvious appeal of seeing penguins explore novel settings like this, it's also a nice break for the countless people now stuck at home due to the coronavirus. We may not be able to get out and wander around the way we'd like to, but at least we can live vicariously through these charismatic birds. And for anyone concerned about the penguins' health, Saint Louis Zoo President and CEO Jeffrey Bonner notes that caretakers are taking precautions to protect the birds.

"The animals in our care are doing well and our animal care scientists and veterinarians have established procedures that protect the animals' health, keeping them safe from exposure to disease," Bonner tells People magazine. "Although the COVID-19 virus may have originated from an animal source, in its current form, it is not yet known to cause disease in any animal species."

If you have ideas for what else you'd like to see penguins do during the coronavirus shutdown, the Shedd Aquarium has made a public appeal for suggestions: