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Saint Louis Zoo’s penguins return to public life

They’re back! The Saint Louis Zoo’s Penguin and Puffin Coast reopens Thursday to the public.

To kick off the celebration, a parade of king and gentoo penguins will lead the way to the exhibit at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. The penguin exhibit closed in September 2013 for construction of a new polar bear exhibit that is next to the penguin habitat. The polar bear exhibit will open this summer.

The penguins have long been one of Saint Louis Zoo’s most popular exhibits, Michael Macek, the zoo’s curator of birds, told “Cityscape” host Steve Potter on Friday.

“Cute and adorable always helps,” he said. “I think certainly there is something very anthropomorphic about penguins; the fact that they stand upright. People often say they look like they’re walking around in tuxedos, and we tend to appreciate the things that we’re more familiar with. For birds, that’s one reason why they might be more popular. But I think also the exhibit has a lot to do with it. It was the first exhibit of its kind ever built where the guest actually enters the exhibit space with the animals. It’s very experiential. You could feel the cold; you hear and see the animals. It’s really a great fun and a very unique experience.”

The habitat has three exhibits: There’s an outdoor penguin exhibit for the birds found in more temperate climates, a sub-antarctic climate for cold-weather birds and a similar climate for the puffins. But puffins and penguins aren’t actually related.  

“It’s actually more closely related to a seagull, but it evolved in a very similar kind of habitat” as penguins, Macek said. Both are from cold wet places but puffins are from the north hemisphere while penguins are from the south hemisphere. Puffins also can fly; penguins lost that ability millions of years ago.

As the habitat setup suggests, not all penguins are cold-weather birds.

“Penguins are found as (far) north as the Galapagos Islands. The equator runs right through that area,” Macek said.

Penguins and puffins are very social animals, Macek said, and live in colonies. “The more the merrier when it comes to penguins,” he said. The zoo has 100 penguins and 40 puffins in its habitat.

For many years, it was thought that penguins were monogamous. Over the last decade, DNA testing has shown that may not be the case, Macek said.

“They will develop a relationship with their mate and stay with their mate for at least a breeding season, but even then there’s some philandering going on,” Macek said. “They might be visiting their neighbors, so to speak.”

Still, penguins are special, Macek said, and consistently draw a crowd at the Saint Louis Zoo.

“We have birds all around us and we often don’t see them — we take them for granted,” he said. “But people love penguins.”

Related Event

Penguin and Puffin Coast reopening

  • When: The penguin parade starts at 10:30 a.m. March 5, 2015. The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
  • Where: Saint Louis Zoo, Forest Park
  • More information

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.