The Maryland Zoo opened its first new major exhibit in a decade on Saturday, pinning its hopes on the endangered African penguin to spark a renaissance for the beleaguered institution.
The new, $11 million Penguin Coast is now one of the first things visitors see after taking a shuttle to the park's exhibits. A small island designed to mimic a makeshift South African fishing camp sits in the center of a ring of water, so the penguins can swim in circles past an enclosed underwater viewing area. There are about 60 penguins, and zoo officials hope to expand the number to 100 in the next three years.
Six years ago, the West Baltimore zoo was struggling financially and so decrepit that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums threatened to pull its accreditation. Though attendance has risen to more than 400,000 in the last several years, the numbers are still dwarfed by the attendance at zoos in other cities, including the National Zoo in Washington, which can number in the millions.
Fourteen new flamingos have also returned to the park, while an aviary destroyed in a blizzard four years ago has been replaced. But the penguin exhibit in the center of the park is what officials hope will help the Maryland Zoo become comparable to zoos in other cities.
"We consider it now one of the finest zoos in the United States," Maryland Zoo President Donald Hutchinson said at a ribbon cutting for the penguin exhibit Saturday morning attended by a few hundred zoo staff and their families, volunteers and donors. "The animals could thrive in our old facility — our workers could not. They were marvelous in their work, but the conditions that we had them in were awful. This is now world-class, and that was all part of our motivation."
The 138-year-old zoo, one of the oldest in the country, nearly had its accreditation pulled in 2008 after a host of problems emerged, including faulty fire alarms, decrepit buildings and drainage, and low wages for workers. That same year, the zoo faced a $3 million deficit and asked the city to forgive nearly half a million dollars in overdue water bills. Since then, the zoo has gotten on firmer financial footing, and some zoo visitors said they could see the improvement over the years.
In the enclosed area where visitors could see the penguins swim underwater, Lauren Utter's 4-year-old daughter, Delaney, jumped up and down with excitement when the birds tore past.
Utter, a first-grade schoolteacher, said she's brought her classes to the zoo for 10 years.
"I think it's a big improvement over what they used to have," she said. "The old exhibit had them in the little space, now you can see them underwater, and this is just so much bigger."
Josephine Kolasinski, 80, of Fallston estimated that she hadn't been to the Maryland Zoo in at least 20 years. Two decades ago, "it was nothing like this at all," she said. "This is beautiful."
Penguins are already the Maryland Zoo's strong suit. The zoo is considered one of North America's most robust breeding grounds for African penguins, and Hutchinson said nearly 1,000 chicks born there now live at zoos in other cities. But Rock Island, the moated exhibit where the penguins had made their home since 1960, had started to show its age.
On Saturday, the penguins did not disappoint, zipping around the pool in schools or solo and sunning themselves on rocks. Staffers brought a penguin named Winnie to waddle near the podium where elected officials and donors gave speeches to open the exhibit.
"I just love that the zoo is adding new exhibits and it's smart that they're adding them one at a time," said Christine Peterson, 37, of Baltimore. "We go to the National Zoo, too, but I actually like this one better. It's a nice walk, there's lots of stuff to look at, the volunteers are amazing."
Motioning to her 3-year-old son, Tucker, she added: "If you can keep the attention of a 3-year-old, that's something."