Of Elephants and Penguins

Thursday was probably the coldest day (so far) of our sabbatical (and the exact half-way point of our year here), and it just so happened that I had signed up to go on an excursion with the AWCZ to the Zürich Zoo. Normally I would have walked up the hill, about 25 minutes from home, but it was 26F with windchill well below that, so I wimped out and took the tram. Before I left the house, my sweet husband suggested that I might be more comfortable if I wore my long johns, and I wisely followed his excellent advice.

I was thinking, as I left the house, that the zoo would be pretty empty on such a cold day, but when the tram pulled up, I counted three different field trip groups already aboard.

It’s been years since I’ve been to a zoo, and I forgot that there are actually places to see animals INside, but by the time we made it to the rainforest, my camera was so cold that the moist warm air made it nearly impossible to take a picture through the steam on my lens. You will just have to take my word that it was a pretty nifty, and very large building. It is patterned after the Masoala rainforest in Madagascar. You could go up 2-3 flights of stairs to look down upon the scene from the canopy, and up there were a colony of bats. Back on the ground level we saw these turtles.

IMG_4659 IMG_4665 IMG_8105Our group leader had arranged a private tour with someone she knew who is a zoo volunteer, and we met up with her next in the brand-new elephant house.

I was surprised to learn that in order to volunteer to be a zookeeper’s assistant, you have to pay the zoo. Then you get the privilege of working M-F, regular working hours. One week on, one week off, another week on, next week off. For 200 CHF. Our guide explained to us that the zoo had had problems in the past of volunteers not showing up, so putting a price on it made people more reliable.

She has been doing this for several years and knows quite a bit about the elephants, the penguins, the camels, the tigers and other birds. Starting in the brand new elephant building, she had many stories to tell us about the elephants who live there and about their personalities, their breeding program, and the advantages of the new structure. Two weeks after the elephant house opened, baby Omysha was born. We learned that all animals born in 2014 had names that begin with the letter O. 2015 will be the letter P. That way, if you know the name of the animal, you can figure out when they were born.

Here is Omysha with her mother and aunt.


This is just part of the huge Elephant House.

IMG_8107 IMG_8115 IMG_8118There are several videos of the elephants on the Zürich Zoo website. (These are for you, Pat!)

The main attraction of the day, though, was the penguin walk (Pinguin in German). When the temperature is 10 C or below (below 50 F), about 16-18 King Penguins take a walk through the zoo. At 13.30 the keepers let them out, and the excited waddling begins. Crowds gather, and then they follow the little guys down the path. The zoo also has a great video you can see here. I mostly took still photos. This is one of the most adorable things I have seen in a long time. It was worth the sub-freezing temps to see.

This is our tour guide, on the left, enjoying the parade as much as we were.


Two Small Potatoes had a similar experience in the Basel Zoo recently.

The Zürich King Penguins are already outside during the winter, so they already have fresh air, but I think they must enjoy the change of scenery, however brief. The Zürich Zoo also has almost 30 Humboldt Penguins which are native to coastal Chile and Peru. In the winter these guys stay inside, but as the weather warms up, the two groups of penguins trade places, so that the Kings can have colder indoor temps when it is warm outside.

After our jaunt with the gray-tuxedoed birds, our tour guide took us behind the scenes to give us more information. She knows the names of all the King Penguins and we took a liking to the youngest one, Noah (born in 2013!) who would rather hang out with the zookeepers than the other penguins. He gets a little more food that way, and he’s a little chubbier.


We learned about how the zookeepers take the fertilized eggs from the penguin parents and replace them with fake eggs while the real ones are kept safe in an incubator. Since they know the personalities of each bird, they know which ones will be the reliable parents, and just before the eggs hatch, they switch the real ones with the fake ones. Apparently, the penguins LOVE their eggs and their young, but they don’t really care whose egg is whose. They have been known to steal and swap each other’s eggs. Every year the King Penguins choose a mate for that year, and it may or may not be the same one as the year before. (The Humbolts, on the other hand, mate for life.)

There is something to be said about having a live tour guide to make our experience come alive. That helped me feel better about not seeing very much more of the zoo. I wouldn’t have enjoyed that part as much since by 15.00 I was tired and walking through the zoo would have frozen me.

(I hope you enjoyed this post, Anne! I was thinking about you as I wrote it….)


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