The story behind the penguins exploring Shedd Aquarium

On March 13, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago announced that it had closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two days later, it went viral after posting a video of the rockhopper penguin Wellington strolling through the empty aquarium, taking in the sights. Subsequent videos featured other penguins (such as the bonded pair Annie and Edward) examining different exhibits, with each new installment of the story gaining significant traction.

The videos are delightful, as the penguins seem genuinely engaged with the other creatures they're seeing and because they're so dang cute. To learn more about these penguin tours, Polygon reached out to Shedd's senior director of animal behavior and training, Steve Aibel.

As it turns out, the penguins' aquarium tours are a regular part of the penguins' exercise and enrichment program, not limited to when citywide shutdowns are in effect. "They are familiar with many places within the Shedd Aquarium," Aibel tells Polygon via email. "The only thing that is new is that they have the whole aquarium to themselves without guests."

Penguins in the Amazon?!

Some of the penguins went on a field trip to meet other animals at Shedd. Wellington seemed most interested in the fishes in Amazon Rising! The black-barred silver dollars also seemed interested in their unusual visitor. pic.twitter.com/KgYWsp5VQD --- Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) March 15, 2020

The penguins are closely monitored as they wander around, to ensure that they're always safe. The Shedd's animal-care experts encourage them to explore different areas, to make them comfortable with the sheer variety of things happening around the aquarium. According to Aibel, the penguins naturally show curiosity about new things, and their minders help by mixing up the places they visit.

Who gets to go on these field trips is decided on a rotating basis, with the more experienced birds allowed to wander for longer periods of time, occasionally helping the younger birds learn how to experience new things. Of the penguins seen on Shedd's Twitter feed so far, Aibel describes Wellington as "calm, curious, and conservation-minded," Annie as a "picky eater, sweet and petite," and Edward as "[loving] to swim and in great shape." (When we asked who the most mischievous penguin was, Aibel named the mysterious "Steve," who has yet to be seen. Maybe on a future trip?)

The adventure continues!
This morning, Edward and Annie explored Shedd's rotunda. They are a bonded pair of rockhopper penguins, which means they are together for nesting season. Springtime is nesting season for penguins at Shedd, and this year is no different! (1/3) pic.twitter.com/VdxN3oQAfe --- Shedd Aquarium (@shedd_aquarium) March 16, 2020

The penguins also aren't the only animals allowed to get out and about. "We believe that all the animals benefit from these visits around the aquarium," Aibel writes. "The sea lions come out to play soccer, the macaws fly through the hallowed halls of the Shedd Aquarium and outside on the museum campus, as well as many others." It may seem risky to let the animals (relatively) loose, but at least when it comes to the penguins, they've built such close relationships with their keepers that "when they find themselves in a new situation, they tend to first come running back to their caretakers," Aibel says.

Wellington, as the first penguin to be featured in a video, has become a star (with his own hashtag, #WheresWellingtonWednesday), but each new penguin has been a blessing for viewers. They're a dual-layered, vicarious experience: We're watching them, and watching the other Shedd animals along with them. As public health remains a concern, Shedd --- and these penguins --- are our gateways into a world that will be unavailable to us for some time. The aquarium's Twitter account has promised more penguin content, as their nesting season gets underway. Maybe that'll be our ticket to finally seeing Steve.
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