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Watch: More penguins on the way in Mystic

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published January 30. 2013 4:00AM

Who doesn't love a penguin?

I remember visiting Mystic Aquarium not long ago when an animal handler rushed by, pushing a little cart full of penguins, all boxed up, black shoulder to black shoulder. They looked like VIPs, all dressed up and in a hurry to get somewhere.

News pictures of Yellow Pink, an African penguin at Mystic Aquarium who got fitted with a wet suit after the waterproof feathers he shed did not grow back, scored a lot of reader eyeballs when they went online last week.

What could be cuter than a penguin being dressed up, like a well-loved doll?

The aquarium began caring for penguins in 1989, after obtaining some from a Maryland zoo.

Since then, African penguins, which are native to southern Africa, have become increasingly more in peril as a species. By some estimates, the population has declined some 95 percent since pre-industrial times.

Just over two years ago, with total population numbers estimated around 55,000, the African penguins were listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

If the decline isn't reversed, some estimates suggest they could be extinct in 15 years.

So cheers to the aquarium here for its work in caring for and breeding the species.

This winter, the aquarium sent three staff members to a wildlife rehabilitation center in South Africa where they helped care for young chicks abandoned by their parents during the molting season.

The volunteer recruits from Mystic helped with all the daily feeding and care for the chicks so they could be returned to the wild, an annual effort. Each of the Mystic staffers wrote about the experience in South Africa on blogs carried on the aquarium's website.

"Volunteers, trained professionals from around the world, helped rear these chicks," said Erin Merz, a spokesperson for the aquarium. "We did our part. It is becoming critical at this point. Even one animal you save makes a difference."

Meanwhile, here in Connecticut, the aquarium has begun to showcase its annual breeding efforts with the penguins.

And the best part is that anyone can watch.

The aquarium is broadcasting a scene from a "back of the house" room at its penguin facility that must be one of New England's most unusual webcams. You can watch here.

The camera shows many of the nests where the penguins are working to hatch some 16 eggs. Some of the eggs are dummies (the penguins don't know it) and others, about six, were chosen for their simple breeding purposes or potential genetic value.

The first chicks are expected to be born soon. And over the coming weeks, the webcam will give everyone with a computer a front-row seat to their development.

Evidently it is fun to watch because the chicks grow up quickly.

Some teachers in the region have planned some class time around watching the penguins develop, according to Merz. The aquarium will also facilitate question-and-answer sessions with trainers and students and encourage penguin dialogue on Facebook.

The interesting thing to watch now is the changing of the guard, as male and female penguins trade places hatching the eggs. African penguins are monogamous, and each partner in a mating pair takes a turn at the nest.

And when they are not sitting on the eggs, the males and females wander and waddle around the room, looking as cute as, well, penguins.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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