Like most Americans, Wellington is seeing fewer people these days.
His home, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, is closed to visitors because of public health measures aimed at preventing the spread of coronavirus. So when the 32-year-old rockhopper penguin went on a walkabout on Sunday, he got to explore exhibits he usually can’t.
Wellington’s waddle, which was recorded by Michelle Nastasowski, one of the Shedd’s animal care experts, proved to be a social media hit. Footage of the penguin gawking at the black-barred silver dollar fish in the Amazon rainforest exhibit proved a charming reprieve to the onslaught of serious news during a global pandemic.
It’s fitting if you know him.
“He’s a very calm bird,” Nastasowski, 29, said. “He seems to adjust well to changes in his environment. He looks around at a lot of different things.”
Wellington also bonds with his trainers and will jump into their laps.
“Typically what we’ve seen with him, and all of the birds when they go on these trips is very relaxed feathers, very relaxed around other penguins and the staff that’s been working with them,” she said.
Wellington and the other penguins often go on such “field trips,” Nastasowski said. Last week, she decided to take advantage of the newfound empty space for their walk.
It was a family outing. His son, Edward, and his partner, Annie, (they have two chicks together) also went exploring, walking past the empty information desk. Annie is more likely to shy away from the spotlight, Nastasowski explained.
As the penguins walk around, the trainers are there to spray them down or to feed them fish (capelin or herring), if they want.
But the rockhopper penguins, who generally only live 10 or 15 years in the wild, aren’t the only animals who get around.
“The macaws will go up to different spaces or the sea lions can go into the office spaces,” Nastasowski said.
Yes, that’s correct.
The sea lions will basically journey down the hall, caretakers in tow, and hang out in the administrative or volunteer offices where paperwork is being done. “They’ll walk around, eat some fish, interact with other care staff and then head back to the exhibit area,” Shedd spokesperson Johnny Ford said.
The wandering is part of keeping a diverse schedule for the aquarium’s animals.
“We’ll do different training exercises, offer them reinforcement and the opportunity explore the different spaces,” Nastasowski said. “With the situation we just have more spaces to bring the animals around the public areas.”
In normal times, the aquarium hosts penguin encounters, otter encounters and encourages interaction with the animals.
“It’s always our goal that animals be comfortable in a lot of different spaces,” Lana Gonzalez, the manager of the penguin and otter teams, said. It’s part of an educational component of the aquarium, which features these animals as ambassadors for their species.
“We really want people to know the plight of the penguin out in the wild. They’re beautiful, they’re cute, they’re really entertaining,” Gonzalez said, noting that there are 18 species of penguins. “But there are several species that are declining. The African penguins are endangered, and other species are almost there.”
Even without visiting the aquarium, people can contribute to preservation.
“Any person in their home could reduce plastic, there’s a lot of plastic in the ocean,” Gonzalez said. “Eat sustainable varieties of fish. If we overfish their food, or other animals, that decreases the amount they can care for their young if they have to swim further to get their food.”
And for critics of aquariums, Gonzalez said, “If people never saw the penguins at the aquarium they would have no idea how interesting or charismatic they are. But engaging tells the bigger story of the plight of the animals — sparking that curiosity and compassion and conservation.”
As for Wellington and his family, don’t worry that they’re shaken up over the world they’ve seen beyond their own exhibit.
The trainers know to look for signs of being upset. In Wellington’s case, he’ll “stretch up his neck, pin down his feathers a little bit more,” Nastasowski said. And that didn’t happen when he got back home on Sunday.