Tails the penguin

Jen Marcinko, of Sykesville, smiles at "Tails," an African black-footed penguin, as zookeeper Mallory Stone holds the bird. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / October 14, 2011)

Jack Ramsey was chugging along in the Baltimore Marathon Saturday when he spotted the penguin by the side of the road.

So he stopped, fished a camera from his pocket and took a picture of Tails, a six-year-old African blackfooted penguin who lives in the Maryland Zoo.

"My wife loves penguins," said Ramsey, of Taneytown. "If I didn't take its picture, she'd be mad at me, no matter how much time I lost doing it."

For the first time in the marathon's 11-year history, participants ran for one-half mile through part of the zoo. Though the route bypassed exhibits, runners still met up with a cast of critters along the way — everything from a Chinese alligator to a North American striped skunk. Zoo employees and volunteers held them up as people passed by.

Dozens of runners pulled up to photograph the menagerie, or to have their pictures taken with the likes of Cookie, a Jersey Giant rooster, or Flanders, a Flemish Giant rabbit who caught Wayne Sherman's eye.

"He's huge," said Sherman, of Springfield, Va., who hung around for several minutes to scratch Flanders' ears, shrugging off the stream of runners going by. "I know I've got seven hours to finish the race."

Elite runners — those with a chance to win — paid no mind to the fauna, focusing straight ahead as handler Adam Zurgable presented Yang, a squirmy 3-1/2 foot Chinese alligator. For the rest of the field, the wildlife seemed a respite from the labors still ahead.

As runners passed Yang, for instance, reactions ranged from double-takes to a thumbs-up to a tip of the cap.

"Howdy, croc," said a fellow wearing a cowboy hat.

"Awesome lizard!" cried another.

"Sheesh," a runner said. "That's not something you see every day."

One man approached the reptile with arms outstretched, as if wanting to take Yang home.

"I could make a pair of boots out of him," he said.

Yang wriggled a bit but seemed not to care.

Some saw the gator and shrieked. Others asked to pet him.

"Set him loose. That'll get us going," someone said.

As they entered the zoo, 3 1/2 miles into the race, runners were greeted by two sleek Ravens, Rise and Conquer, the football team's mascots who live there.

To them, the attention was nothing new.

"These guys are used to crowds and noise," said Jane Ballentine, the zoo's public relations manager. "They're iconic Baltimore birds who'll give a little flavor to the race. Seeing 6,000 people is nothing to them."

Shouts of "Go Ravens! Go Ravens!" echoed through the pack.