Penguins marching into Lincoln Zoo

The new Humboldt Penguin exhibit is expected to bring new visitors to the zoo. This is good news for other popular animals like monkeys who enjoy performing for an audience. Photo: Bryan Odell, NewsNetNebraska

For over 40 years, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo has been a top destination for Lincoln citizens and their families.  Kids get to pet the animals, see exotic creatures and ride the train. But the recent loss of the zoo’s marquee attraction – a seal named Toney — has created tough challenges.

“Last year we had to send our seal away to another zoo,” said Rachelle Humiston, senior director of institutional advancement at the zoo.

Toney had an eye infection that was worsened by living in a freshwater environment.  After consulting several experts, the zoo decided it would be best for the seal to be sent to another zoo in Kentucky that had a saltwater exhibit.

“Obviously this put us in a difficult situation,” said Humiston.

Zoo officials decided they needed a new attraction.  And luckily for them, a unique opportunity soon presented itself: the endangered Humboldt penguin.

“Our zoo has a longstanding history of working with endangered animals,” she said.  “Previously we have brought kangaroos, pandas, leopards and crocodiles here, all animals that were on the brink of extinction.”

The zoo had success in breeding these animals and was even been able to reintroduce some of them into the wild.  These and other factors contributed to Lincoln’s selection as a home for the Humboldt penguins, one of only 16 in the nation. [media id=12 width=360 height=264]

To see more on the Lincoln Zoo, click the image above.

According to Humiston, the timing could not have been better.

“There is a huge cultural phenomenon going on with penguins right now,” she said.  “Movies like Happy Feet and Madagascar are a big part of that.”

Even last year, before penguins were even on the zoo’s radar, they were one of the zoo’s top selling attractions.

Humiston believes having penguins at the zoo will expand their audience and bring in new visitors.

But to make this vision a reality, the zoo faces many obstacles.  Estimated costs for the new exhibit are about $300,000. To save money, the zoo’s managers decided to renovate the seal exhibit to meet the penguins’ needs.

But they still needed help.

In April the Lancaster County Commission approved a $150,000 grant to help the zoo bring the penguins to Lincoln.

Visitors to the zoo are able to have an intimate experience with the animals. Hand on activities like feeding the goats are one of the reasons it is the number one attraction in Lincoln. Photo: Bryan Odell, NewsNetNebraska

“I think it’s important to always invest in the future,” Humiston said.  “And because the Lincoln Children’s Zoo is the most popular attraction in Lancaster County, we believe this is a great way to invest in our city.”

Most of the money from the $150,000 grant was drawn from lodging taxes paid for by tourism.

Visitors to the zoo can expect to see the new penguin exhibit later this year.  Until then, zoogoers can visit other new exhibits including a new habitat for squirrel monkeys.  Or they can past the time by go going for another ride on the zoo train.

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