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Detroit Zoo offers peek inside $30 million penguin center

Polk Penguin Conservation Center to open to the public on Monday

By: Victoria Mitchell | Royal Oak Review | Published April 13, 2016

 A penguin swims at the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo April 13.

A penguin swims at the new Polk Penguin Conservation Center at the Detroit Zoo April 13.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Nearly 70 penguins made an appearance April 13 during a sneak peek of the $30 million Polk Penguin Conservation Center inside the Detroit Zoo.

The 33,000-square-foot center is scheduled to open to the public April 18.

Detroit Zoological Society Executive Director and CEO Ron Kagan expects the new attraction to draw heavy attention, as it is the largest penguin habitat in the nation.

“I think it’s very significant for penguins, and I think it is a significant opportunity for us to help people understand Antarctica and penguins and things like climate change,” Kagan said. “I think also it will be very important in terms of driving attendance in the offseason, because it is at the front of the zoo and indoors.”

Three species of penguins are calling the Polk center home right now — gentoo, macaroni and rockhopper. The king penguins will join the others once molting season comes to a close, bringing the total penguins to 83, said Detroit Zoological Society Chief Life Sciences Officer Scott Carter.

Carter said the maximum capacity has not yet been determined, but the Polk penguin population will grow with managed reproduction.

The new center features a multilevel, open floor plan with vaulted ceilings, extensive natural light, multiple viewing areas and tunnels, and a 326,000-gallon chilled aquatic area that is nearly 10 times the amount of water than the former Penguinarium, built in 1968, offered. The penguins’ swimming area sinks 25 feet for diving and zooming, with the gentoos able to reach 22 mph.

“They will really hit the accelerator pedal,” Kagan said. “What is really remarkable is that they will swim and then all of a sudden make a 90-degree turn without slowing down.”

Carter explained that in addition to offering plentiful viewing for visitors, the center was designed to ensure an optimal atmosphere for the welfare of the birds.

“We did a lot of research into the design of this, and whenever a zoo builds, it looks to what other zoos have done,” he said. “And we did that, but for us the important place for learning was in nature, so we spent a lot of time watching a lot of penguins in the wild.”

The air temperature is set at 37 degrees and the water is maintained at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and includes different terrain for walking, lapping waves created by a wave machine set at variable speeds, falling snow and plenty of ice.

“One of the things we did not include from nature was predators,” Carter said.

The not-so-camera-shy feathered friends are acclimating quickly to their new home, Carter explained, and still haven’t found all of the features for them to explore.

The exterior of the center features a 1,400-square-foot fountain that will serve as a splash pad during the summer and an ice rink during the winter months.

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center is named after the Polk family, whose $10 million contribution helped make the center a reality.

Entrance into the center is free with zoo admission.