By Michele DeLuca firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — Somewhere in this city there’s an empty building or warehouse that could be the perfect spot for a colony of temporarily homeless penguins.
Note to that building owner: Gay Molnar is looking for you.
Molnar, director of the Aquarium of Niagara, is seeking a location downtown, close enough so aquarium staff can easily get to the penguins for care and feeding, while their new home is being built.
“We’re looking for an extremely generous developer or corporation that has some space ... we want to keep our colony intact,” she said recently.
The new exhibit is part of up to $2.5 million in renovations and upgrades needed which will fortify the aquarium’s application for accreditation from Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“What we’re doing is looking towards a multi-phase, complete facelift and renovation of our existing facility,” Molnar said.
The facility has already spent well over $600,000 in upgrades over the last five years, she added. But much more is needed, first and foremost, a new penguin home.
The penguin project will displace a very tight knit little family of nine penguin personalities, according to the keepers.
The oldest penguin the the colony is William, who at about age 35, hails from the original colony established at the aquarium in 1978. Next oldest is Opus, 25, hand reared at the aquarium, purchased from a collector in Peru. DJ is 23, Tux is 20, then there’s Araya, 16, Lou, 14, Burgess, 13, and and siblings Bobbi and Chile, 7.
William is the sweetest and his mate, Burgess, is very protective. “She’s all about William,” said Autumn Syracuse, an aquarist who runs the “penguin encounter” program where visitors can spend time with one of the black and white birds.
William is also the one visitors often get to see more closely. “A lot of times he likes to sit up front at the window,” Syracuse said of the eldest penguin.
“In the world of penguins, we have what you might call a geriatric community,” noted Michele Paterson, an aquarist and records manager. Aquarium life appears to have done well by William, she added. Captivity has nearly doubled William’s life span, since penguins typically only live into their 20s in the wild, she said.
While penguins are typically known for their love of the cold, these are not those kind of penguins. They are Humboldt penguins and they like sunny days and warmer climes.
The new exhibit, which will triple the size of their current exhibit, will be balmy and bright, with more swimming space and underwater viewing.
“This is about giving our birds the best exhibit they can possibly have,” Paterson said.
Construction for the new exhibit will begin once the birds are placed in temporary housing. Thus, the hunt for housing is on. The staff wants to keep the penguins together, locally, because if they are sent to another aquarium, there’s no guarantee of getting them all back.
“They have a history here,” Molnar said. “and the stress of relocation is an unknown. We would much rather have them in temporary space for a year or so ... but what’s most important is the health of the birds.”
It would be a bonus if the location was downtown, where visitors could stop by and look in on the birds, she added.
“If we could find a benefactor, we would love it,” said Molnar. “We’re open to any kind of discussion.”
She noted that the Aquarium staffers are planning another fundraiser to afford the upgrades that will help make the facility world class. “We need the support,” Molnar added. “We need to go to the public and say we’ve been here 48 years. We’re the only attraction open every day for 275,000 plus visitors every year.”
The aquarium only closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day. For more information or to invite the penguins for a long visit in a local warehouse or building, call 285-3575 or visit www.aquariumofniagara.org.