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Zoo’s penguins march to their own drummer

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First there were the hilarious 3-D zoo escapees Skipper, Private, Kowalski and Rico in the smash hit "Madagascar." Then the heart-touching, dangerous quest to start a family and keep the baby alive in "March of the Penguins." And after being nominated as VH1's Biggest Breakout Star, starring in a Coke commercial and making headlines for an infamous New York Central Park Zoo gay couple, 2005 has been the year of the penguins.

Here in Utah, the state has its own animated flightless birds — namely, Hardy, Gia, Puff, Rocky, Bluebird, Blackbird, Whitebird, Greenbird, Newton, Dancer, Scrappy, Smooty, Flap and Shaker.

At Hogle Zoo, the 14 feathered friends have become an increasingly popular attraction since the release of "Madagascar" and "March of the Penguins."

"Everybody's all about it right now. They draw a big crowd," said Brandy Von Weissenstein, a member of the animal care staff at the zoo who oversees the penguins. "They're funny. They have incredible personalities. People don't think they do much. But if you watch them for a while, it's like a soap opera."

Cuddly, mild and kind of dull are just a few of the misperceptions people have about the creatures — most brought on by movies and commercials.

Zoo public relations and marketing specialist Stacey Phillips has had to deal with some of the bigger falsehoods. Since the nationwide release of "March of the Penguins" this summer, Phillips has had numerous patrons accuse the zoo of animal cruelty because of the penguins' warm living conditions. During the spring and summer months, the penguins are kept outside in a sunny, rocky pool but they're kept inside during the winter and fall, especially when there's snow on the ground.

The species of penguins Hogle owns — African — originate from the warm, coastal waters of South Africa and cannot tolerate temperatures below 40 degrees.

"We get a lot of 'There's snow on the ground, why won't you let them outside?' " Von Weissenstein said. "Because there's a giant movie out there, everyone thinks, 'Why aren't they in the snow?' There's a good 12 species that don't live in the snow."

Total, there are 17 species of penguins, all of which reside in the Southern Hemisphere. But only about five species actually live in chilly places like Antarctica; the rest thrive in warmer locales, like Australia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Islands and Peru.

Hogle's eight female and six male penguins, also referred to as black-footed penguins, are the only species that breed in Africa and are found nowhere else. The African penguin is also on the Species Survival Plan , a program that aims at conserving and maintaining a threatened population.

Contrary to popular belief and the hit Coke commercial showing penguins and polar bears sharing a beverage, the two are not friends. They aren't enemies either — another common question zoo employees get.

"Polar bears and penguins don't even live in the same hemisphere," Phillips said. Polar bears reside in the Northern Hemisphere, penguins in the Southern. Their top predators are seals and bigger birds. But they throw a mean, winged punch.

"(People ask) 'They're small, they can't do a lot of damage, right?' " Von Weissenstein said. "No, they can beat you. They're very powerful."

You can occasionally find Von Weissenstein with a new cut on her arm from a penguin's beak and bruises on her legs from their wings. Penguins also fight each other, particularly over territory and nesting places.

But Von Weissenstein, who says penguins are her favorite animal, doesn't mind getting a few bumps and bruises. She clearly loves being a zookeeper over the active birds and could go on about their unique qualities. She refers to them as "little humans" and can list many similarities between the swimming bird and the walking mammal.

"A huge misconception with animals is that they look the same and act the same," she said, holding hand-raised penguin Hardy. "But they all have different characteristics. They're a lot like humans."

The zoo hopes to have a baby penguin — with Hardy and her boyfriend Smooty — sometime next year. The zoo must be careful about breeding the vulnerable species because of inbreeding risks.

Unlike most birds, penguins' bones are solid, like a human. Penguins cannot fly because of their bone structure and their small, fluffy, fur-like feathers. Their wings are hard and muscular.

"Everything about their body is for flying in the water," Von Weissenstein said. Most will swim 40 feet below the surface. Their black backs camouflage them from predators looking down onto the water and the white bellies distract predators looking upward.

The African penguins are monogamous and recognize each other by their spots and vocalizations. As for Von Weissenstein, she can tell them apart easily, pointing out the differences physically (and in their personality) from one to the other. "They're so animated and curious. They're my favorite."

E-mail: astowell@desnews.com