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Big and Little get up close with the penguin whisperer

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, communications
Photos by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo

“I’m really not a seafood person.” quips Giovanni, “Ooohwee, that’s a strong smell!

Humboldt penguins feast on anchovies, trout, smelt and herring at Woodland Park Zoo to mimic their natural diet in the Humboldt Current off the coast of Chile and Peru. Sometimes the aroma can be potent!
Giovanni, ‘G’ for short, is visiting the Humboldt Penguin exhibit with his Big Brother Luke. The pair is a match with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound and they are here to get a special close up look at penguins with keeper Celine. The pair has experienced many outings since being matched by Big Brothers Big Sisters about 8 months ago, from trips to the arcade to grabbing burgers to just hanging out after schoolbut this experience is by far the most pungent.

Community Access Program tickets provide a special opportunity for the children in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program, and supports and fosters the match relationships. Celine and G are a red-headed match to boot!
Celine introduces G and Luke to the four types of fish diet that the colony of penguins receives. She points out the vitamins that help the penguins, who range in age from 28 years to 4 months old, stay healthy and active. G is especially interested in how the penguin keepers tell all the penguins apart and keep siblings from snatching each other’s fish. He explains, “I have four brothers and a little sister, so I know a lot about siblings.”

Celine shows Luke and G the colored bands that help penguin keepers track who is who in the black and white clad penguin colony. 
G explains that one of the reasons he wanted a Big Brother is that one of his older brothers is also in the program and he thought it sounded pretty cool. “I waited forever to get a Big Brother, and now I finally have one.” Nicole Nguyen of Big Brothers Big Sisters says the average time on the wait list is a little over one year, but when you are a kid it can seem like forever! Since being paired with Luke, 10-year-old G says he’s taught Luke a lot about life, like how to win at arcade games and how to choose the best toys. “I teach him some things.” says G. Luke laughs, but agrees that he’s learned a lot from this 10-year-old. Even while looking at penguins, G tells Luke about how their feathers look just like the feathers he finds around his neighborhood. G is curious, astute and eager to share all he is taking in with Luke.

As a mentor, Luke says it’s really important to share these new experiences with G. He explains that while they do a lot of normal things like just hang out and eat meals together, these rarer excursions act as springboards for both of them to get out of their routine and do things they wouldn’t normally do, like feel the downy under feathers of a 3-month-old penguin chick or watch a penguin gulp down an anchovy. 

An egg is an egg? Celine, dubbed the ‘Penguin Whisperer’ by G, tests him on his faux egg verse real egg identification skills. He’s a pro by the end of the lesson.
“We're really grateful that Big Brothers Big Sisters provides us the opportunity to do such cool things.” says Luke, “Without receiving the complimentary zoo tickets, and having the awesome chance to speak with a zookeeper and meet the animals, G probably wouldn't have the same level of interest or knowledge when it comes to zoos. It was easy to see G's enthusiasm grow during our outing, and was a great way to get him outside, active, and learning. Now he's so excited to go back to the zoo! He can't wait to see the penguins, which he says are his new favorite animal.”

Prince shows Luke and G his moves while keeper Celine makes sure everyone behaves, including Prince.

Luke grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona and moved to Washington to go to the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. After graduating, Luke moved to Seattle to start work at Premera Blue Cross and began looking for a good way to give back to the community. “Being a Big Brother seemed like a great opportunity because I wanted to have a lasting impact on somebody's life.” 

Being a Big means meeting with your Little once a week for an hour or so, chatting about their school day, getting the scoop on their friends and family life and just being there to listen, laugh and answer questions. G asks Luke, “Have you ever seen that much poop!?” Neither of them have seen penguin guano before, but as Celine shows them the nesting burrows, guano and all, it’s clear that as fascinating as the birds are, it’s having Luke here with him that really makes this a special experience for G.

It’s obvious that while the penguins are really cool, and Celine is very entertaining, it’s sharing this experience with Luke that makes G. the happiest.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound matches hundreds of kids with volunteers who want to make a difference. The children often come from low income homes and single-parent households, which make outings like a zoo visit especially tricky for parents. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound has had a positive impact in the Seattle community for over 60 years and has been an exemplary Community Access Program partner.  The program has been delivering complimentary zoo tickets to Bigs and Littles for many years, as well as WildLights tickets during the winter celebration.

We believe that many kids like G would benefit from access to their zoo whatever their means or motivations. The Community Access Program works with over 600 community partners and local organizations to make a free visit to the zoo possible for more than 50,000 people every year, but we can do better.

This summer, King County voters will have the opportunity to significantly boost access to science, arts and heritage educational programming. If passed by vote, Proposition 1 - Access for All will provide funding to Woodland Park Zoo and more than 350 community-based organizations to expand access to learning experiences and remove barriers for underserved communities throughout King County.

Celine holds a young penguin so G and Luke can get a closer look at its downy feathers.
Celine has saved this moment in the tour for last, a 3-month-old penguin chick waddles into the back yard where G and Luke are just inches away from the adorably chatty penguin. “I’m so excited to see this baby,” says G, “They are really sweet.” Celine reminds the pair that penguins can be rough too, she shows them her protective clothing and places where the birds have pecked. She also introduces them to Prince, a 1-year-old penguin with a gregarious call. “He sounds pretty much like a donkey or a seagull.” G tells Luke that penguins are now going to be his favorite animal of all time.

Even cooler? The penguin team has decided to call the little chick “Gio” in honor of Giovanni’s visit.

Celine says of the name, “I think that would be a great way to honor the Big Brothers Big Sisters’ story of what being 'family' and caring for each other really means. Our penguin colony is all about family. And hopefully this already outgoing and inquisitive young chick will be as inspiring to the children and families who learn his story as they visit him at the zoo…just like his namesake.”

Big Brothers Big Sisters, the nation’s largest donor and volunteer supported mentoring network, holds itself accountable for children in its program to achieve measurable outcomes, such as educational success, avoidance of risky behaviors, higher aspirations, greater confidence and better relationships. These mentoring programs have proven, positive academic, socio-emotional and behavioral outcomes for youth, areas linked to high school graduation, avoidance of juvenile delinquency and college or job readiness. By supporting Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound and its participants, the zoo’s Community Access Program hopes to inspire Littles (and Bigs!) to investigate nature, fall in love with creatures of all kinds and learn about actions they can take which will help protect wild animals and their habitats.

After the penguin tour, G takes home a ZooParent penguin. This ZooParent adoption was made in Luke and Giovanni’s honor, to thank them for sharing their story with us.
We want to extend a huge thank you to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Puget Sound for supporting kids in our community, and the hundreds of dedicated Bigs who make our community an especially amazing place to live. We’d also like to give big props to Luke and G for taking the time to visit us and tell us their zoo story. If you are interested in becoming a Big or know a child who might benefit from this program, you can find out more about this fulfilling and life-changing volunteer opportunity by visiting

It's a privilege to be able to offer a zoo experience to matches throughout the year and we look forward to seeing many more smiling faces for years to come.