Winnie, a South African penguin from Baltimore, waddled through the lobby of a Times Square hotel over the weekend, allowing just about anyone to take photos of her. A man, trying to balance his drink and his camera phone, squatted down next to Winnie. The penguin's handler warned him to keep the drink away -- or Whinnie would think it was for her.
Winnie, and her penguin friend Lilly, weren't visiting the Big Apple to take in the sites or a show. Instead, they were here on Endangered Species Day to promote the latest effort to help save 10 endangered species, including the South African penguin: SAFE, or Saving Animals From Extinction.
The program, which launched over the weekend, aims to bring together more than 200 zoos accredited under the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to brainstorm on how to save some of the world's most desperate species. And New York's Wildlife Conservation Society, which includes the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium, is one of the larger supporters of that effort, said Dr. Debborah Luke, Senior Vice President for Conservation & Science at AZA.
"The attendance to all of the WCS institutions is amazing," Luke said. "So if we can get just those people themselves to become aware of whatas happening with these animals, to share what their knowledge is about these animals, and to engage not only themselves, but their circles of influence in the conservation actions to help them, they can actually make a big change. And by doing that it spreads across the country."
Going to the zoos and paying the admission fee helps, Luke said. Visitors to the New York zoos will notice a new sign with information on why these animals are endangered. SAFE will focus on 10 animals to start: the South African penguin, gorillas, sharks and rays, cheetahs, sea turtles, Asian elephants, black rhinocerosa, the vaquita (a rare species of porpoise), the western pond turtle, and the whooping crane.
"Modern zoos and aquariums must be conservation organizations relating to the species in their care and the conduit for protection [of] those species in the wild," Jim Breheny, WCS Executive Vice President and General Director of the WCS Zoos and Aquarium, said in a statement. "Through science, funding, education and expertise, zoos and aquariums are a major contributor to conservation around the world. The health and well being of global biodiversity is a top priority for AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and their 180 million annual visitors. Launching the AZA SAFE initiative is a fitting way to mark Endangered Species Day."
Simply seeing these animals up close and in person is often enough to get someone to want to help. Raising awareness is the first step.
"They see the animals and all of a sudden they are hooked," Luke said. "That's the power of zoos and aquariums: you're there, you see those animals, you see them, you smell them, you hear them. And you're now connected to them and you care."
SAFE will focus on bringing together resources from all 229 AZA zoos and aquariums to help the animals on that list. They first met about the South African penguin in November. Their next meeting is planned for August to focus the cheetahs in Johannesburg.
And several companies are jumping on board to help. Jewelry company ALEX AND ANI is donating a portion of the purchase price of their penguin charm bracelet to SAFE. And children's flip flop company FishFlops is donating a portion of the proceeds from every pair of shoes marked with a special tag, including penguin, orca and angelfish-themed slippers.
"It shows that anyone can [help], especially people my age,a said Madison Nicole Robinson, the 17-year-old designer of FishFlops. "Animals are also used for educational purposes and if theyare gone kids in the future wonat be able to know what they are, how they acted or what they ate."