Get up close (and underwater) with the penguins at their new Denver Zoo habitat

October 2, 2021
211001-DENVER-ZOO-AFRICAN-PENGUINS211001-DENVER-ZOO-AFRICAN-PENGUINSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Denver Zoo has opened its new African penguin habitat. On Friday October 1, 2021, the little critters were not that excited about the idea of hopping in the water, but they paid close attention to zookeeper Travis Garrett at feeding time.

Denver Zoo’s newest greeters are familiar feathered faces. Their African Penguins will now welcome visitors on their way through the park entrance as some of the first animals guests will see.

Just across the arid dirt landscape of Predator Ridge, where the zoo’s lions and hyenas make their home, now sits a new watery blue tank with grey rocks. Inside, a flock of African Penguins are getting used to their new digs and their new proximity to visitors.

Now closer to visitors than ever, the birds can see their human guests when they go for a swim underwater as well as when they waddle on land. 

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John Azua, the zoo’s Curator of Birds, said the new enclosure is meant to resemble the penguins’ home in the wild. 

“It has a 10,000-gallon pool with a really state-of-the-art life support system and a wave action machine that gives artificial waves that really allows the penguins to simulate the true swimming that they do off the coast of South Africa,” he said. 

Multiple teams across the zoo’s animal care, horticulture, design, maintenance and marketing departments worked together to envision the penguin’s new home. 

Although the penguins had been a part of the zoo’s Bird World since the 1970s, once that space closed, zoo leaders wanted to find a new home and a new layout for the flock. Azua said they chose the location across from Predator Ridge because the environments of Sub-Saharan Africa and the continent’s southern coast provided such a strong contrast. 

211001-DENVER-ZOO-AFRICAN-PENGUINSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Denver Zoo has opened its new African penguin habitat. They follow zookeeper Travis Garrett at feeding time, Friday, October 1, 2021

“The African penguins are a staple of the Denver zoo's animal collection, and it's a dynamic species that people just love,” Azua said. “People just love penguins. You can see that in the media, you can see that in books. We wanted to keep the African penguins, and we felt that giving them a dynamic exhibit that's quite a bit larger than they had was really going to benefit the zoo, the people of Denver, and the species themselves.” 

Thursday, on the opening day of the penguins’ new home, a handful of young visitors arrived in penguin costumes, shirts and hats to commemorate the occasion. More than one young guest yelled “penguin!” on sight. 

Although the birds weren’t in a swimming mood this morning, many visitors were taken by the enclosure’s calming blue pool. 

“This three feet to four feet of underwater viewing really is captivating when you see the bird swim,” Azua said. “When you see them as a flock and they go back and forth, it is so tranquil. It's also great because it's a great viewing opportunity for kids.” 

211001-DENVER-ZOO-AFRICAN-PENGUINSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The penguins paid close attention to zookeeper Travis Garrett at feeding time.

Only about 5,000 African Penguins are left in the wild, and Azua said there’s still a lot of work to be done to save the endangered species. Like many other animals, African Penguins have been drastically affected by climate change, changes to their habitat and overfishing.

Azua said some of the zoo’s keepers have gone to South Africa to work with a seabird-saving organization known as SANCCOB and share the zoo’s knowledge of caring for the species for decades. 

Zoo officials are doing a lot to help the penguin population from Denver, too. That includes a successful breeding program.

At the moment, the Denver Zoo is home to 17 penguins, ages ranging from 2 years old to 30, but Azua said the zoo is hoping to get to a population of 25. And the zoo’s breeding program has been so successful that they’ve contributed the animals to other zoos: There are now about 500 of them in zoos across North America.

Officials say they are looking forward to restarting the breeding program once the current penguins have settled comfortably into their new homes. 

211001-DENVER-ZOO-AFRICAN-PENGUINSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
At the moment, the Denver Zoo is home to 17 penguins, ages ranging from 2 years old to 30.

Azua said he hopes the new habitat will help visitors also think about the conservation efforts to save the aquatic birds here in Denver and abroad. 

“What we want to do is we want to have species for people to see in the future and to help get an idea of what we can do as a society to help endangered species,” he said. 

Azua said caring for the birds in Denver has helped officials gain valuable experience into how they and others can help endangered species in their native countries.

“The conservation efforts that we do with the penguins really is a staple of what we are trying to do in other places of the world, whether it's Mongolia, whether it's Peru, whether it's Africa or whether it's here in our backyard.”

211001-DENVER-ZOO-AFRICAN-PENGUINSHart Van Denburg/CPR News
The little critters were not that excited about the idea of a swim.

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