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Polk Penguin Conservation Center named 2017 exhibit award winner

The Detroit Zoo’s Polk Penguin Conservation Center received the 2017 Exhibit Award from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) on September 12 during its annual conference, held this year in Indianapolis. The award is the top honor bestowed annually upon accredited institutions for excellence in exhibit design.

“This award is the highest honor in exhibit design, and recognizes the Detroit Zoo for their dedication and expertise in designing a novel, immersive habitat that provides the best in animal care and welfare as well as a superior educational experience for visitors,” said Dan Ashe, AZA president and CEO.

The penguin center opened in April 2016 and led the Detroit Zoo to record-breaking attendance last year. Among the most spectacular features of the $31-million, 33,000-square-foot facility is a 326,000-gallon, 25-foot-deep aquatic area where visitors can watch more than 80 penguins of four species – king, gentoo, macaroni and rockhopper – explore their habitat. An underwater gallery with a vast acrylic window and two acrylic tunnels provides breathtaking views of the birds below water and allows guests to get nose to beak with the charismatic birds in aquatic “flight”.

“An incredible amount of creativity, ingenuity and research went into the development of the Polk Penguin Conservation Center’s unique design, including crossing the Drake Passage to Antarctica and observing thousands of penguins in the wild,” said Ron Kagan, executive director and CEO for the Detroit Zoological Society (DZS). “We wanted first and foremost to create an experience that allowed the penguins to thrive and that was also thrilling for our visitors. The result is the most extraordinary conservation center for penguins in the world that redefines ‘state of the art’ for zoo penguin habitats.”

While the facility provides a remarkable experience for people, the penguin habitat itself is designed to ensure an optimal atmosphere for the welfare of the birds. Their air temperature is set to a near-freezing 37 degrees Fahrenheit and the water at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The environment encourages wild behavior, from diving and porpoising to nesting and rearing young.

Inspired by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s legendary Antarctic expedition and epic crossing of the Drake Passage, the Polk Penguin Conservation Center evokes the harsh and visceral ice world of the southern continent, recreated in a 360-degree 4-D entry experience on the deck of Shackleton’s ship that includes blasts of polar air, sea mist and snow. Reminiscent of a tabular iceberg with a crevasse and waterfall, the striking exterior conjures the stark and beautiful Antarctic icescape.

The Polk Penguin Conservation Center was designed by Jones & Jones, architects of the Detroit Zoo’s Arctic Ring of Life and National Amphibian Conservation Center, and by Albert Kahn Associates, architects of the Zoo’s Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex. World-renowned polar ecologist and penguin expert Dr. Bill Fraser, director of the Polar Oceans Research Group, was a key consultant on the project.

The AZA is the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and seven other countries; there are currently 231 accredited institutions, including the Detroit Zoo, which has been continuously accredited since 1985. The AZA is dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, animal welfare, education, science and recreation.
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