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Guests visiting Brookfield Zoo’s The Living Coast may have the pleasure of seeing Pepe, a Humboldt penguin who hatched on March 13, waddling along the exhibit’s walkway as an ambassador for his species. On days when the exhibit is not too crowded, zookeepers bring Pepe, now 5-months-old, out to meet the public. They answer questions and share facts about Humboldt penguins as well as some important conservation work taking place in the birds' native country of Peru.

“By offering opportunities to meet Pepe up close, we hope to make a connection with our guests that will inspire them to want to learn more about his endangered counterparts in the wild,” said Tim Snyder, curator of birds for the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield Zoo. Snyder noted that Pepe’s appearances are not scheduled but do occur several times a week in the exhibit’s Rocky Shores habitat.

During these appearances, zookeepers inform guests about fieldwork being conducted by one of the Society’s vice president of clinical medicine. Since 2007, Dr. Michael Adkesson has been conducting research with the Humboldt penguin population at the Punta San Juan Reserve in Peru. The program is designed to help researchers understand the population health, breeding success, and stability of the population at Punta San Juan, a key breeding area that protects almost half of the entire Peruvian penguin population. The data collected during the study helps Dr. Adkesson and his colleagues to determine what diseases and nutritional factors influence the health of the population and to evaluate environmental toxicants the penguins are exposed to. More than 355 penguins have been evaluated since 2007. The fieldwork is a collaborative effort among the Chicago Zoological Society, Saint Louis Zoo, and colleagues at Cayetano Heredia University in Peru.

In the wild, the decline in Humboldt penguin populations has reached crisis proportions, with populations plummeting over the years from an estimated hundreds of thousands of animals a hundred years ago to 20,000 to 50,000 today. The species continues to faces significant pressure for survival from commercial fisheries that deplete prey fish availability, fishery by-catch, climate change, and nesting site disturbance from coastal development. Humboldt penguins live along the desert coast of Peru and Chile in South America. There, one of the world’s driest deserts meets one of the world’s most fertile oceans. Humboldt penguins spend most of their time in the ocean, primarily in the Humboldt Current.