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Shedd penguins’ field trips bring a little joy to the world

With the aquarium closed along with other prominent Chicago spaces, the penguin trainers took them to frolic at some other local tourist attractions, and the videos were an online sensation.

Shedd Aquarium penguins checking out the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Shedd Aquarium penguins checking out the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Screenshot from Shedd Aquarium YouTube video

Like other major cultural institutions in Chicago, the Shedd Aquarium closed to the public more than once during the coronavirus pandemic.

And since people couldn’t get inside the Shedd, the Shedd reached out to the people — with some little, waddling ambassadors.

The Shedd’s first penguins arrived in 1991 with the opening of the Oceanarium. Since then, they’ve visited other exhibits in the aquarium. But the birds’ first offsite trip came in June, to the Field Museum, which was still closed to the public at the time.

Video of the penguins pacing past Sue the T. Rex was a hit online.

After that, Shedd trainers took the Magellanic and Rockhopper penguins to a few other famous Chicago sites. They needed the exercise, after all, and the sites were empty, or nearly.

Since that first field trip to the, well, Field, the penguins also strutted their stuff at Soldier Field and the Museum of Contemporary Art, besides their usual — but heretofore less publicized — stops at other exhibits within the aquarium.

Shedd Aquarium penguins made their first off-site field trip to the Field Museum in June.
Shedd Aquarium penguins made their first off-site field trip to the Field Museum in June.
Screenshot from Shedd Aquarium YouTube video

The penguins’ trips captured the attention of Chicagoans — and the world. People apparently loved watching the penguins frolic through exhibits, or on the Bears’ home turf.

Trainer Alicia Atkins, who has worked with the penguins for nine years, said the regular field trips might be getting more notice now but always have been a mainstay of the aquarium’s programming.

“It’s really great for their welfare, [to] provide exercise, and build relationships with them,” Atkins said, explaining the penguins genuinely enjoy trips to new places. “I’ve actually been contacted by family members who live in Los Angeles and in various states across the country and they’re like, ‘Hey, I saw your penguins on the news this morning!’” she said.

Indeed, the footage of the penguins exploring different places in Chicago museums went viral earlier in the summer, with mentions and tweets from all over the world admiring, laughing and finding joy in the sight of curious penguins running around empty spaces.

“IMPORTANT” and “OMG IN LOVE” were just some of the hundreds of responses on Twitter. “Put this content in my veins,” another Twitter user said. Videos of the penguins scurrying past Sue had garnered more than 5,000 retweets and nearly 13,000 likes by mid-December. The Rockhoppers have even been featured on the BBC.

What better place for a field trip than an actual field? The Shedd penguins also visited the Bears’ home turf at Soldier Field.
What better place for a field trip than an actual field? The Shedd penguins also visited the Bears’ home turf at Soldier Field.
Screenshot from Shedd Aquarium YouTube video

During their trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art, the penguins moved freely through the lobby, past paintings and other works of art without much intervention from handlers.

“It really seemed like they were looking at the art. They were stopping at paintings and looking up at them and moving on to the next thing. The non-humans responding and interacting with art was incredible,” Michael Daring, the MCA’s chief curator, said. “The other thing that was kind of incredible how they always stayed together. They were super curious and meandering around, but always doing it together.”

Atkins says the best part of the penguins’ newfound fame is that the aquarium’s mission is still being spread, even virtually.

“I just think it’s really great that we’re able to spark compassion, curiosity and conservation everywhere, even though our doors are currently closed,” Atkins said. “It’s really humbling to know that these videos have reached so many different communities.”