It’s all smiles and waves from the newest residents of Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden. On Oct. 27, 14 Humboldt penguins made their debut at the grand opening of the Kinney Family Penguins of Patagonia exhibit just inside Mesker’s entrance. Open year-round, the outdoor exhibit is the first Humboldt penguin habitat to reside in Indiana in recent years.
Nine males and five females are visible waddling across the enclosure’s land bridge, tucking into its nesting boxes, zooming through underwater passages, or floating over to greet visitors through the four glass viewing areas, one with underwater views six feet below grade.
“Since we started construction, people have not been able to stop asking about it,” says Mesker’s marketing director Danny Schembre.
The expansive space includes design details, such as pools, a rocky coast, vinyl fish decals, and rocks and shells embedded in the exterior landscape, that make the space as immersed as possible in the penguins’ native Patagonia. Speakers surrounding the enclosure will play sound loops of rushing waves and seagulls, adding to the authenticity of the design.
Humboldt penguins are warm-weather penguins hailing from South America’s Patagonia region, specifically the coastlines of Chile and Peru. To make Evansville’s environment comfortable for the penguins, a geothermal water filtration system built underground maintains a safe temperature by using water from Mesker’s Lake Victoria. Concealed within the exhibit’s rocky backdrop is a keeper building equipped with indoor housing, nesting, and additional water filtration.
“It used to be, once upon a time, a zoo was just a circus that stayed still. Obviously, as time progresses, the standards for animal care raises,” says Schembre. “And us being an Association of Zoos and Aquariums facility, we hold ourselves to a golden standard for animal care.”
The $7.2 million project was a collaborative effort. Funding was split between the City of Evansville — Mesker Park is a department of the City — and fundraising from donors such as Wayne and Beth Kinney, for whom the exhibit is named. Donors were honored with a sculpture outside the exhibit designed by local artists Cory Lamb and Rachel Wambach.
Evansville’s ARC Construction was the general contractor, while CLR Design of Philadelphia was the architect. Sub-contractors include Cemrock Landscapes, Inc. of Arizona for the artificial geographical features; TJP Engineering of Oregon for the life support system; signage and infographics by ECOS Communications of Boulder, Colorado; Three-i-Design of Evansville for engineering; and additional graphics by Evansville’s Sprout Design. Mesker’s own landscaping department created the Patagonia landscaping.
While the penguins are now ready for the public eye, their keepers Taylor Kitchell and Chris Felts have one more surprise under their flippers. An interactive penguin feeding experience will open later this year after the penguins have had more time to acclimate to their surroundings and routine. Guests who pay an additional fee will be able to hand feed the penguins at scheduled times from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“I think people are really going to be surprised at this exhibit,” says executive director Erik Beck. “You hear about penguin exhibits or a new exhibit at the zoo, but this is a really transformational space right here at the front of our zoo.”
Guests can visit the penguins by dropping by from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. any day of the week or reserving a time at meskerparkzoo.com. Masks are required for entry and indoor facilities at the zoo, but not outdoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.