MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — One of the most endearing places in the entire Minnesota Zoo is the penguin habitat.

“Penguins are, if not the most popular, they’re top-three most popular animals here at the zoo,” penguin keeper Eric Reece said. “I had no idea how popular they were till I started working with them, but everybody loves the penguins.”

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And few love them more than Reece, who grew up near the zoo in Burnsville.

“I always kind of dreamed of working with animals in some capacity, and I ended up working at the zoo,” he said. “I grew up going to it, so it’s kind of a dream come true.”

The very animals he used to visit are now under his keep. And on this day, he’s keeping them away from the water so he can clean.

“There’s a lot more to it than a lot of people think,” Reece said.

Like preparing their food.

“We feed herring in the morning and capelin in the afternoon,” he said. “This is restaurant-quality fish. Nothing but the best for our penguins.”

And food is the main reason why penguins are endangered.

“They eat anchovies and sardines, but unfortunately people also like to eat anchovies and sardines, and they’re being overharvested,” Reece said. “These guys are critically endangered in the wild.”

(credit: CBS)

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So these birds are rare, even in captivity. In Minnesota, there are 10 at the Como Zoo, and 29 at the Minnesota Zoo. Each penguin has a name.

“For example, Giblet, she hatched two days before Thanksgiving,” Reece said.

And each packs its own personality.

“Some of them will follow me around like little puppy dogs and want my attention. Other ones [are] kinda standoffish and they don’t really want to interact with me,” he said.

They range from juveniles to 29 years old, and they can live to 40. You can only determine gender by testing their blood, so the only way to tell the gender is by tagging them. If they have one of these on the right wing, it’s a boy. On the left, it’s a girl. The African Penguin is only about 4 to 8 pounds.

“The reason there’s penguins in Africa is there’s a cold water current that flows up from Antarctica right along the coast that brings nutrients, and so that means lots of fish, which are obviously what they eat,” he said.

But that food is now scarce, and with oil spills and hunting, 70% of the species has been killed off in the last 40 years.

“We do not take any from the wild. We work together to manage our population and then spread the word that the ones out in the wild are endangered,” Reece said. “So we need to work to, you know, keep them safe out there in the wild, and then these guys are ambassadors for their species.”

The hope is that the more zoo patrons learn about the species, the more they will care.

Reece says the best way for people to help is to eat sustainable seafood and support penguin saving organizations to keep the species — and the hope — alive.

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Click here for more information about supporting penguin conservation.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield