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The last time any penguins were at the Garde, they were, what, dancing around on screen in "Mary Poppins"?
This weekend, a pair of real, live penguins from the Mystic Aquarium will waddle into the Garde as the star attraction at Saturday's Penguin Party.
The event is part of a new joint venture between the theater and the aquarium called "Faces of Our Planet." The series uses film, live performances and multimedia presentations to explore, as the title suggests, faces of the planet - human, sure, but also animal and geographic.
Steve Sigel, the Garde's executive director, says the series developed after Stephen Coan, Mystic Aquarium's president, approached the Garde about working together with the National Geographic Society and the Sea Research Foundation, the parent organization of the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.
The result is a world culture and science series that encompasses what the three institutions do.
"We came up with this concept - let's just not necessarily focus on what's in the sea or on the land but let's look at various faces on our planet. Let's look at the human world as well," Sigel says "It can get people thinking about who we are by looking at different parts of the world in which we all live."
And so the series kicked off with the Soweto Gospel Choir on Feb. 2. Future events include multimedia programs with Crittercam inventor Greg Marshall; Arctic photographer Paul Nicklen; and deep sea explorer Robert Ballard.
First things first. At Saturday's Penguin Party, the two real penguins will be on a cart, surrounded by plexiglass. That allows the African penguins, who are under two feet tall, to be at eye-level for kids. The plexiglass provides an up-close experience while making it safe for both the birds and the children.
Beyond the birds, the party promises related recreation - making penguin sand-art necklaces, getting penguin tattoos, participating in waddle contests, and watching the movie "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa."
Cassandra Meyer-Ogren, the aquarium's marketing coordinator who is organizing the Penguin Party (the party was the brainstorm of Garde marketing and development director Jeanne Sigel), says, "It has been a joy to be involved with because it has so many fun elements to it. .... This event allows for a lot of fun, but it's also a great educational opportunity. That is what we're all about."Learning Penguin facts
As part of the Penguin Party, Mystic Aquarium staff will talk to the public about penguins.
Among the things visitors will learn: African penguins are being considered for the endangered species list.
Laurie Macha, supervisor of penguins and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions) at Mystic Aquarium, says, "Over the last eight years, there has been over a 40 percent drop in the world population. It's dropping at such an alarming rate that if it continues at this rate, scientists predict they could become extinct in the next 15 years."
A major problem is food. Changes in water currents in South Africa has meant the migratory fish that penguins usually feed on are now bypassing the areas where many of the penguins live. It's unclear why the currents are changing.
The Mystic Aquarium research department and husbandry staff are raising funds to support research in South Africa. They are also helping through their own research; they can learn a lot about the species' behavior and nutritional needs that could be useful in helping penguins in the wild.
Macha says Mystic Aquarium's training program is unique.
"It's very different than working with a marine mammal or a food-motivated species like a dog. I'd say working with penguins is more cat-like," she says.
The Mystic trainers study the penguin's innate behavior to understand how they socialize, and that helps the humans understand how to build trust with the birds.
"What we found is, because they pair off for life, they recognize a mate, they are very social and very tactile with their mate, and there's a certain body language that they will show when they want to get close to a mate," Macha says. "The other part of it is, preening is really important for them. ... They do a lot of preening each other, even though they're not mates."
Because African penguins tend to be two feet tall or less, they can feel vulnerable and defensive if humans loom over them. So, for instance, in the penguin encounter program, people sit low so they're more at the bird's level. (The encounter program is open to the public by reservation for $79; visit www.mysticaquarium.org for details.)
All events are held at the Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London. Call (860) 444-7373 or visit gardearts.org.
Penguin Party, 3 p.m.; see African penguins from Mystic Aquarium, participate in penguin-related games and activities, and watch Dreamworks' animated feature film "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"; $12 adults, $6 ages 12 and under ($10, $5 aquarium members).
"A Wild Point of View," 7:30 p.m.; biologists, inventor and National Geographic filmmaker Greg Marshall's Crittercam produces glimpses into the animal world, from sperm whales to Emperor penguins; $24 ($54 includes VIP reception).
"Polar Obsession," 7:30 p.m.; stories and screen images from Arctic biologist and photographer Paul Nicklen; $24 ($54 includes VIP reception).
"Adventures in Deep-Sea Exploration," 7:30 p.m.; Robert Ballard, who discovered the Titanic, shares his stories of discoveries, his passion for the last great uncharted territory and his vision of how technology can continue to advance the frontiers of exploration; afterward, he will sign copies of his book; $24 ($54 includes VIP reception).