Where's Wellington? How DuPage woman became a chaperone to Shedd's popular penguins
People everywhere have fallen under the spell of the personable penguins from the John G. Shedd Aquarium, whose videotaped field trips have made them social media sensations.
Westmont resident and marine biologist Corine Gilbert is one of the lucky few who get up close and personal with the famous fowl. She's among the handlers charged with chaperoning the well-traveled birds on their outings to such iconic cultural institutions as Chicago's Field Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art and Soldier Field.
"There is an amazing, feel-good aspect to (the penguin excursions) we're happy to provide," said Gilbert, originally from Hinsdale and now a Shedd Aquarium animal care specialist who has worked with the penguins since 2017.
Gilbert's right about that. During the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the antics of penguin pals Wellington, Annie, Edward and others delighted millions of viewers from every continent, doubling the aquarium's Twitter and Instagram followers and increasing its Facebook audience by 30% in the process.
Some videos show the penguins waddling through the Shedd -- wings outstretched, necks craned -- to visit the aquarium's belugas and sea otters. In others, they dart past the Field Museum's famous dinosaur Sue and pause in one of the galleries at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
If there's such a thing as penguin star power, they've got it.
Excursions inside the aquarium -- to other exhibits, the gift shop and employee offices -- have long been part of the penguins' routine, Gilbert said.
"Field trips are really good for them, for the physical exercise and the mental stimulation," she said.
Their natural curiosity makes penguins ideal tourists, said Gilbert, who, like her fellow handlers, has developed a special relationship with her charges.
Establishing that bond requires building trust, she said. To that end, specialists sit, socialize and talk with the penguins.
Gilbert even reads Wellington his fan mail, sent by both kids and adults who find the 33-year-old rockhopper penguin a delightful distraction.
The day after the aquarium closed last March in response to Gov. J.B. Pritzker's orders to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, one of the penguin handlers -- on impulse -- filmed the birds trekking through the Shedd's Amazon Rising exhibit. Employees didn't intend to post the video, but they reconsidered, reasoning that doing so would help assure anxious animal lovers that the Shedd's residents were being cared for while the aquarium was closed, said assistant public relations director Johnny Ford.
The public's enthusiastic response encouraged employees to chronicle penguin trips to museums and Soldier Field, where they sprinted through the locker room and onto the field.
"For some reason, it was what the world needed," Ford said.
The videos, Gilbert added, "brought a lot of joy" as they help promote the Shedd's stated mission of "sparking compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic world."
Penguin outings are unstructured, Gilbert said. The birds wander where they please, handlers trailing behind. And it's not unusual for the birds to get distracted and race off to observe a new curiosity.
While Gilbert is glad the videos make people happy, she hopes they inspire viewers to learn about aquatic animals and become "more cognizant of (the penguins') wild counterparts."
If loving penguins creates a desire to protect them, the efforts of the Shedd's newest stars will have paid off.