For Logan Wehrle’s second birthday, his parents brought him to Brookfield Zoo, where he stood Monday on a short wooden box with a piece of kale in his outstretched hand.
Arnieta, a 10-year-old giraffe, bent down her neck and stuck out her tongue to grab the treat.
“He loves giraffes,” said his mother, Robyn Wehrle, who lives in Elgin. “I consider it a wild animal, so to be able to get up and close and see how they are so close is awesome.”
Many visits to the zoo mean looking at animals from behind bars and windows, but this summer Brookfield Zoo is giving visitors more hands-on experiences, including the chance to feed giraffes and get up close and personal with penguins.
The new outdoor animal encounter with giraffes — the first of its kind in the Chicago area — began in late May and since has served up nearly 3,200 feedings, zoo officials said. The program will continue at least until Labor Day.
For $10 in addition to general admission, visitors can serve giraffes a combination of treats including romaine lettuce and kale, as well as leaves, twigs and branches cut down and delivered by ComEd from trees trimmed along overhead power lines.
“It was so cute,” said Gail Stojak, 55, who lives in Orland Hills and fed crunchy kale to Jasiri, an 11-year-old giraffe, Monday at the zoo. “They’re such beautiful animals, and to see them within two feet is what is so worth it.”
Visitors spend about five to 10 minutes with the food in their hands, waiting at ground level for a giraffe — which is typically 14 to 17 feet tall — to mosey up to the fence and lower its head for a snack.
“Most people don’t realize how they use their tongue and how long their tongue is,” said Bill Zeigler, senior vice president of animal programs, who said the creature’s tongue can be 10 to 14 inches long. “They wrap the tongue around the branch, and as they pull back they’ll strip the leaves off.”
During the feeding time, an animal care specialist is on hand to educate guests about how the zoo is supporting conservation efforts of reticulated giraffes in Africa.
“Everyone understands the plight of elephants and gorillas, but what they don’t understand are the silent issues going on with giraffes,” Zeigler said, such as poaching and the dwindling population.
The zoo’s research team surveyed guests and found that they were interested in engaging more with animals, Zeigler said. In 2015, the zoo created its Animal Ambassador Program, in which staffers remove animals from their exhibits to interact with visitors on zoo grounds. The giraffe encounter is another way to provide greater access to animals under controlled situations, he said.
Additionally, it helps fulfill the mission of the Chicago Zoological Society, a private nonprofit organization that operates Brookfield Zoo, to inspire conservation leadership by connecting people with wildlife and nature, he said.
“We want to engage people more with animals and staff, make them more aware of conservation issues that surround particular species we’re working with and hopefully provide a unique experience as well,” Zeigler said.
Brookfield also offers a personal experience with penguins, similar to programs available at Lincoln Park Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium.
Lincoln Park Zoo began its penguin experience in the spring, charging $60 per person to enter the African penguins exhibit, where the penguins are free to approach visitors but guests cannot touch or feed the birds.
The Shedd offers a penguin encounter in which guests can stroke a Magellanic penguin’s back and wing for $75.95 for adults and $66.95 for children, a price that also includes express entry, admission to all exhibits, a ticket to the next available aquatic presentation and a complimentary photo. In addition, Shedd visitors can touch the skin of a beluga whale and stingray and assist a trainer for the day and feed animals.
At Brookfield Zoo, more than 500 guests have signed up for the $40 penguin encounter offered since early June. Before the birds waddle into the room during 45-minute sessions, visitors are informed of the zoo’s efforts to protect Humboldt penguins in a coastal area of Peru.
“The penguins can decide to come up to you or not and engage with you. When they do, we allow people to touch them,” Zeigler said. Zoo visitors may find that the 26-inch-tall penguins have an oil base and feathers that are much stiffer and less fluffy than those of other birds, he said.
Leslie Castillo decided to surprise her daughter, Risa, with a penguin visit on Monday for the girl’s 5th birthday.
“She’s an animal lover,” said Leslie Castillo, of La Grange Park. “She can’t get enough.”
Risa held her birthday gift — a stuffed penguin toy — when two penguins, 5-year-old Pepe and 4-month-old Kukla, entered the zoo room and waddled over to her. The girl’s hand gently stroked their backs.
“It (felt) like slime and water,” Risa said afterward. “Penguins are so cute!”
Both the penguin encounter and giraffe feedings are available 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily.
General admission to Brookfield Zoo is $19.85 for adults and $14.50 for children 3 to 11 and seniors 65 and over. Children 2 and under are admitted free.