Saturday, January 16, 2010

Not Dead Yet

No, I did not die of my penguin-inflicted injury (though if I get to choose how I die, that's toward the top of the list), nor did I contract Penguin Flu and spend five months recuperating. My extended absence from the blog has been partly from keeping very busy with my now-year-old freelance copy editing business, and partly from racking up the GDP of several small nations in MyFarm. As if Facebook weren't enough of a time suck without the games.

Back to my penguin-inflicted injury, though. For my birthday last summer, Emp. Peng. surprised me with a trip to Kentucky, specifically the Newport Aquarium. We started the day off with the Penguin Parade, which has three penguins in a modified Radio Flyer forming a processional for the assembled crowds and distracting us from a very informative discussion by the aquarium docents on the volume of guano a penguin produces daily.

As we waited for the penguin parade, Emp. Peng. drew my attention to a sign advertising the Penguin Encounter. In addition to a cross-border penguin excursion, he'd arranged for the add-on tour that included 45 minutes of in-habitat time with the African penguins! Me and the penguins in the same room! He had specifically booked the 4 p.m. Encounter, since the aquarium staff said that was the best time, right after penguin lunch when their bellies are full and they're content.

The schedule gave us some time to see all the aquarium exhibits, and we even took the behind-the-scenes tour of the vet areas, kitchen areas and inner workings of the aquarium. We caught the sea turtle trying to eat scuba equipment as the diver prepared for feeding time, and learned that, in the absence of algae or native kelps, the fish eat broccoli. In the veterinary clinic, the tour guide showed us how you anesthetize a penguin, which requires duct tape and an extra-large drink cup from Arby's.

The day capped off with the Penguin Encounter, which would prove to be a close encounter, indeed. After some basic hygiene to ensure that we didn't track any germs into the habitat and some instructions to keep our camera straps securely around wrist and neck, we were led into the habitat and shown to the benches along the wall. The penguins roam free during the encounter, but the keeper has to give the humans the green light for touching the birds. If the penguin wants to touch you, that's up to the penguin. One, Paula, spent most of the encounter trying to eat Emp. Peng.'s shoelace.

Mostly, the penguins waddled around while the keeper recapped most of the same guano talk from the morning processional. The penguins, fully loaded from lunch, obliged with a demonstration of their guano-producing ability, though they managed to miss us both. One other person in our Penguin Encounter group was not so lucky on that front.

Three times during the 45 minutes of habitat time, the keeper brought the penguins around, luring them with a hamster-shaped cat toy, so we could touch them, shoulder to tail, using the aquarium-approved two-finger touch. On the first round, I was introduced to Blue, a juvenile. The juveniles are known by their flipper band colors, since their final home zoo or aquarium will name them. The keeper positioned Blue facing away from me and occupied his beak with the hamster toy while I got to feel penguin feathers firsthand, thus crossing one more thing off my list of things to do before I die.

A few pets in, Blue apparently decided the hamster toy wasn't interesting anymore, craned his neck around and beaked me in the back of the hand! Actual penguin bite! The keeper caught his beak and turned him back around, and I, undaunted, went right back to petting him. By the way, their beaks are sharper than they look, but the damage was minimal. I made Emp. Peng. take a picture of my penguin-inflicted wound, anyway. If you look really close, you can see a straight red welt where his beak pinched me, right about in the center of the photo: