PenguinI’ve always had a fascination with penguins, ever since I was a child. However, never in my wildest dreams did I actually think I’d meet a penguin. Then one day, I sat on a small bench surrounded by strangers (who would quickly become friends based on this amazing shared experience), and there in front of me stood 407. At just under 2 years old, 407 is a juvenile Magellanic penguin and one of the many penguins that are a part of the encounter program at Shedd. This Extraordinary Experience, similarly to Shedd’s beluga encounter and Trainer for a Day programs, allow guests to get a close-up, behind-the-scenes experience — not just for entertainment, but an amazing opportunity to learn more about these beautiful animals.

Besides the obvious enjoyment for the guest, the penguin encounters are actually quite helpful for the penguins and Shedd training staffers. The trainer explained that this program allows the penguin to become comfortable in many different unfamiliar situations, especially around new people. This means the penguins can more easily be introduced to new people, such as a new veterinarian, without as much hesitancy.

Penguin encounterWhile beneficial to the penguins themselves, it is also a truly magical experience for guests of any age. After going through a very quick introduction about what to do and not to do during the encounter, it was impossible not to see the excitement build in each participant's face. After putting on waterproof boots (identical footgear is less of a distraction to the birds,) we sat down and waited for our trainer and penguin to arrive. While waiting we were able to ask questions to a few of Shedd’s very informative volunteers — what do penguins eat? How much? Life span? Size? And a host of other questions that I’ve always wanted to know about penguins.

Then, suddenly, a girl sitting on the end of the bench, who couldn’t be older than 8 years old, let out a gasp and pointed toward the door. There stood the trainer and our newest friend, 407. The trainer began by putting out a few toys — a mirror (with which 407 was absolutely fascinated) and a few different-sized rubber balls that 407 liked pushing around. She then placed 407 on the ground in front of us. While the bird got comfortable with the new faces, which she showed by wandering back and forth in front of and “investigating” everyone in the group, the trainer continued to talk about how Shedd cares for penguins and continued taking people's questions, although it was obvious the focus had shifted. 

Penguin encounterOver the next half-hour, everyone was able to pet 407 (penguins have very soft feathers!) as well as learn more about these amazing birds. The most noticeable thing was how, in front of this very inquisitive animal, everyone turned into a child. Each participant, no matter how old, had the same excitement that that 8-year-old girl had when she first saw the penguin make its entrance. As we took our photo with 407, we all discussed how we would remember this experience forever. We all went our separate ways to explore the aquarium afterward, but we were all certainly impacted by this amazing experience.

I honestly can’t think of a better experience to share with family or friends; it truly will be remembered forever!

Sign up for your penguin encounter today, you may even get to meet 407 yourself!

—Joe Kantor