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APR 14 - APR 21, 2015

Aquarium Project to Cost $15 Million; Penguins Simply Couldn't Care Less

By Mike Hudson

April 14, 2015

For years the Penguins at the Aquarium have been housed in a small refrigerated room, with a glass front, never seeing daylight or moonlight, never diving deep in the cold water to hunt their own food, but relegated to being fed what caretakers bring, Do penguins care? Do they feel or notice? While the penguin cage is being expanded from 350 square feet to 1000 square feet - which is a little less confining - it is only 650 square feet larger. It's like going from tiny to very small.

The $150,000 in taxpayer money given by the city to the Aquarium of Niagara two weeks ago for the improvement of penguin habitat was only the beginning. The firstphase of the project, which is expected to be completed by the 2016 tourist season, is expected to cost around $3 million. This is part of an overall plan that willtake six years and an estimated $15 million to complete.

The penguin exhibit will be expanded from its' current 300 square feet to 1,000 square feet. The Buffalo engineering firm of Canon Design was paid $64,000 of statetaxpayer's money from USA Niagara for a preliminary study of the project's scope.

But aquarium and city officials have been hush hush when it comes to speculating how much of the $15 million burden is expected to be borne by Niagara Falls taxpayers.

The aquarium has four sources of revenue. Paid admissions cover some of the operating expenses, but corporate donors also contribute. The city has also been supportiveand, in the case of the current project, aquarium spokesmen have said they are "looking for the community to also donate funds."

Certainly, there was no talk of a $15 million price tag for the project during the push to get the city Council to come up with the $150,000 two weeks ago. As Buffalodeveloper Mark Hamister is finding out with his proposed hotel development downtown, money is extremely tight along the Niagara Frontier regardless of how muchpolitical influence you can sway.

And what of the penguins themselves? What sort of life do they lead many thousands of miles removed from the Antarctic and Arctic wastes and bottomless oceans theywould normally call home, cooped up in a small room and never seeing the natural light of day?

The Aquarium of Niagara keeps four kinds of penguins locked up in its facility, the Chinstrap, Humboldt, Emperor and African penguins. The African penguin is on theendangered species list, the Humboldt is listed as threatened and near endangered and the Emperor is near threatened. What are the ethics involved in pulling theseanimals away from their natural environment and locked up behind glass walls for the amusement of humans?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights organizations take a dim view of such spectacles. They say that zoos and aquariums are actuallycontributing to the extinction and near-extinction of threatened animal species by constantly shuttling the animals from one place to another for display. The tinycaptive populations result in inbreeding as well, and removing breeding individuals from the wild population endangers the viability of that population.

This wouldn't go over too well today, but, in the 70's, in conformity with the sensibilities of the times, the porpoises at the Aquarium of Niagara were used for the entertainment of humans and the animals feelings were of little moment.


In the case of the Aquarium of Niagara, it is difficult to see how keeping the penguins in their artificially lit, air conditioned enclosure benefits the species, orthe individual animals at all. In fact, just the opposite seems to be the case.

The Emperor penguin can serve as an example. Standing up to four feet, three inches tall and weighing as much as 100 pounds, they can live to be 50 years of age. TheEmperor is at home in coastal Antarctica, where temperatures of 70 below zero and winds approaching 90 miles an hour are common.

As monogamous as human beings, Emperor penguins have a strong sense of family and community. And, as anyone who's seen the Academy Award winning 2005 documentary"March of the Penguins" can attest, they feel happiness, sadness, grief and sorrow much as humans do as well.

A predator, the Emperor's primary diet consists of fish. In hunting, the species can remain submerged up to 18 minutes, diving to a depth of 1,755 feet under pressurefar beyond what any human could tolerate.

The Emperor is a very powerful animal and doesn't care for the idea of captivity one bit. In one case, a crew of six men, trying to capture a single male penguin for azoo collection, were repeatedly tossed around and knocked over before all of the men had to collectively tackle the penguin.

But at the Aquarium of Niagara, the penguins are cut off from communal ties, permitted only to splash around in what amounts to a glorified child's swimming pool. Dothey forget the thrilling dives, the wind rustling their feathers and the bright sunshine?

Would you?

Instead they become the forced participants in something called "Penguin Encounters," where for $75, an aquarium patron can "get up close" to a penguin and participatein an "interactive session behind the scene of the penguin enclosure." For an additional $20 they'll give you a photo CD of your experience.

We bet the penguins are thrilled. They probably don't even get to keep a cut.

And much like the penguins, the taxpaying citizens of Niagara Falls have now become unwilling participants in the aquarium story. How much of the $15 million billthey'll be asked to cover is the only question remaining.

The Aquarium of Niagara will, for a $75 fee, permit a person to go into the refrigerated enclosure that coops the penguins and allow that person to feed one of them. For an extra $20 you can take home a CD of the experience.






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