What is your impression of the penguins at the zoo?
Well, they are the little creatures that stay in a group and waddle around a small pool. They get fed fish. And they should swim, although you are not so sure how they behave in the water.
At the end of the day, penguins are not the “star” animals that sell zoo tickets. Even though they are found at most zoos, you don’t pay much attention to them.
But is it because you think the penguins are boring? And if that’s the case, is it because the penguins are bored? Are the penguins boring and bored by nature?
Actually, penguins are curious and surprisingly agile in the water. But they rarely display those characteristics in front of the visitors. As a result, visitors end up believing that the penguins are boring and not worth checking out.
However, Asahiyama Zoo in Japan knew that the penguins were very interesting animals indeed. They believed that they shouldn’t be forgotten just because the typical zoo facilities weren’t designed to leverage their amazing characteristics. So they decided to unleash their natural abilities by literally “unleashing” them.
Instead of confining them in a secluded area 24/7, they started a program called the “Penguin walk” in winter. Freed from the cage and released into the corridors, the penguins get to take a walk for about 30~60 minutes everyday to access their food, which is placed about 500 yards away. They are allowed to walk at their own will and own pace to reach their meal. Once freed into the environment, they remember their curiosity. The change was instantaneous.
The Penguin Walk was initially created by leveraging the King Penguin’s habit of going hunting to the sea in groups. See how they walk in a file.
More excitement is added when the Gentoo Penguins join the adventure. Gentoo are super curious, independent and love adventure. You can see them play and dive in the snow.
Images courtesy of Noriharu Kubo
Once the penguins have regained their autonomy (there is no human intervention during the walk), they can interact with their surroundings, including visitors, much more proactively. Since they are so fun to watch, the Penguin Walk became the Zoo’s most popular event during winter. And the Asahiyama Zoo, once a small, municipal organization struggling to attract customers, became one of the most popular zoos in Japan. After the success of the Penguin Walk, they extended their innovative philosophy to design facilities focusing on showcasing animals’ amazing natural behaviors and abilities. They call them “behavioral exhibits,” which paved a new way in modern zoo design. Applying behavioral exhibits philosophy, all the animals are star animals: they all came from harsh and competitive wild, in which they developed wonderful strengths to stay resilient.
Penguins are also very agile in the water. It’s something you don’t imagine by watching them waddle on the ground. The Asahiyama Zoo’s penguin house is designed so that the visitors can see penguins swimming underwater.