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Zoo readies penguin habitat

Published: Monday, Jan. 14, 2013 12:32 p.m. CDT
In this Dec. 27, 2012 photo, an area is seen at the Scovill Zoo in Decatur, after workers broke ground for the new penguin exhibit at the zoo. Three years after fundraising efforts began, a group of warm-weather penguins is set to find a home at the zoo in 2013. (AP Photo/Herald & Review, Jim Bowling)

DECATUR (AP) — Three years after fundraising efforts began, a group of warm-weather penguins is set to find a home at Scovill Zoo this year.

But whether the birds arrive in May or October depends largely on the speed of construction that is now under way. The Decatur Park District Board of Commissioners approved a $1.4 million contract with Christy-Foltz Inc. on Dec. 5, and the company began work the following week.

There is, however, a lot to be done. Construction includes infrastructure like new sanitary sewer, storm and water lines. The Humboldt penguins will have a 5,000-gallon pool to swim around in, and they will be able to take refuge in a building that also includes the filtration systems and two pools for isolation if any animals get sick.

The birds' propensity to relieve themselves with great frequency also led exhibit designers to include a sprinkler system.

"We're plugging away. That's about the best we can do. We're hoping for the best weather we can get," Scovill Zoo director Dave Webster said.

The exhibit is being built where guinea pigs, barn owls, box turtles and crowned crane had been housed. The crane will move to a new exhibit. Some box turtles went to the Miller Park Zoo in Bloomington, while the guinea pigs and barn owls will remain off exhibit until zoo staff can find another place to display them.

Some aspects of the penguin exhibit, including much of the infrastructure, were not anticipated by officials who initially estimated it would cost $500,000. Jim Kiefer, director of operations for the park district, said many of the new expenses would help make the birds more comfortable.

The exhibit will have room for 15 birds, though the zoo will start with 10, Webster said. They will come from zoos across the country: Seattle; Santa Barbara, Calif.; Syracuse, N.Y.; St. Louis; Philadelphia; and Wichita, Kan.

Kiefer said park district officials would likely know by the end of February whether work has progressed far enough to get the exhibit done by May. If so, the penguins would be quarantined until the exhibit became public June 8.

But if construction is hampered by bad weather or other problems, the penguins likely would not reach the zoo until October.

The penguins cannot be moved during the summer, Webster said, because that is when they undergo the stressful process of molting. After losing all their feathers, the penguins do not enter water, and in the wild do not eat until their feathers grow back again.

"Our No. 1 thing is we want to make sure that we get them in here, get them healthy and keep them healthy. We don't want to do anything that's going to jeopardize that," Webster said.

"We already know that we're on a tight deadline, and we hope to meet that. If we do, we'll get the penguins in, and if not, then the penguins will be postponed, because we just don't want to be bringing them in at a time that's not in their best interest."

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