Rockhopper penguins typically die 10-15 years after they hatch, usually at the mouth of a sea lion, entangled in a human’s net, or from avian cholera. However, Wellington and Drake are pushing 34 this December, and the twilight of their prolonged life spent under the roof of Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, I find it only appropriate to reflect on their journey inside these walls. Here is a not-so-brief timeline:
December 1987: Wellington and Drake are hatched at a SeaWorld.
March 1991: Wellington and Drake arrive at the Shedd Aquarium a month before their enclosure opens.
June 1996: Wellington’s first biological child, Edward, is born. He is placed in the custody of Drake and Magdalena because Wellington was deemed unfit to be a parent.
January 1, 2000: A small batch of rocks appears at Drake’s nesting quarters.
January 5, 2000: An aquarium worker notices Wellington collecting small rocks and placing them near Drake’s nesting quarters.
August 2001: Drake is routinely photographed nestling his head into Wellington’s shoulder during their daily naps.
December 2003: At their shared birthday celebration, a precocious human child pets Wellington a little too hard.
December 2003: Drake bites a precocious human child and is placed in his own special enclosure for 2 months.
June 2005: One of the feeders, Aaliyah, graduates high school. She no longer works her usual post of feeding the penguins in the afternoons. Drake and Wellington are so devastated that they don’t eat for three days.
July 2006: Drake is seen hopping onto Wellington’s back while he’s laying down. Some interpret it as a back massage, some interpret it as playing. Either way, Drake makes it a fun little habit.
April 2008: Wellington is blessed with a biological granddaughter to be named Annie. He and Drake are not selected to parent the egg.
August 2010: Drake makes a habit of swimming for hours. He often swims in circles. Sometimes he bumps the side of the enclosure, but no one seems to notice.
November 2010: Wellington and Drake fight over a fish, but reconcile after playing in the water.
February 2011: Drake misjudges the height of a rock that he hops on, and injures his left wing. He is once again placed in his own rehabilitative enclosure for 2 months.
April 2011: Drake returns to the enclosure. Wellington annoys many patrons and workers because he refuses to stop squawking excitedly.
May 2013: Aaliyah returns to the aquarium. After visiting hours, she likes to play soft brassy music and tell stories to the penguins. Wellington likes the sound of her voice.
February 2014: A rolling blizzard causes the aquarium's power to go out. The workers find Wellington and Drake huddling with a group of baby penguins for warmth.
April 2014: Attendees of the after-aquarium-hours-event “Jazzin’ at the Shedd” frequently remark how Drake and Wellington seem to hop around and dance whenever they hear a Nina Simone or Billie Holiday song. Like they recognize the music.
June 2015: In what many trolls describe as “a hyperwoke PR stunt,” Wellington and Drake are selected to parent a new egg. Dozens of people show up to the Shedd to see the gay penguins nest an egg, taking turns keeping it warm. Most people have a hard time identifying which penguin is which, as most penguins look shockingly similar. Wellington is notable for his deep, human-like eyes. Drake is noted by the special tag on his left wing.
July 2015: The aquarium holds a naming contest for the new baby penguin, and unfortunately, a targeted campaign results in the winner being Little Monster.
December 2015: Little Monster makes many friends by being a soft-spoken, easy going guy.
September 2016: During routine fish-feeding, Wellington uses his feet to identify fish. He awkwardly picks them up once he feels them, and looks around aimlessly.
October 2016: The feeders notice that Drake has lost some weight, and doesn’t leave Wellington’s side during meals.
January 2017: Wellington is removed from the enclosure to undergo cataract surgery. He is placed in a small enclosure by himself to receive daily eye drops and medication.
May 2018: Drake briefly falls in love with a cutout of Zendaya’s character from that yeti movie.
July 2018: Wellington is returned to the group’s enclosure to find his sleeping quarters are covered in feathers, small rocks, and today’s fish.
March 30, 2020: Wellington goes viral on the internet for marveling at other animals during his trip around the aquarium. That night, he dreams of the sea.
December 2020: At the Facebook Livestream of their 33rd birthday party, Wellington and Drake take a lengthy stroll around the aquarium and celebrate outliving most of the animals there. They are given a special ice block to slide across, some fun-shaped multivitamin gummies, and a photo op.
February 2021: Drake uses all the muscles in his body to preen Wellington’s back. Limited spectators notice that they don’t seem to spend much time apart.
The most geriatric penguins in captivity usually live to be 20-25, which makes Wellington and Drake’s lives all the more marvelous. I wonder every single day what wills the two of them to continuously defy the laws of nature. What does it mean to live -- to fully thrive -- inside those walls? In the absence of predators, health issues, overfishing, etc., what keeps these little dudes going?
But the longer I spend my time holed up in the confines of a 1000-square-foot apartment because of a governing body mishandling a global pandemic, I start to understand a little more. And while I sit here and write silly little words about penguins I’ve only met once (through the humiliatingly embarrassing Zoom penguin encounter that I paid for), I can’t help but think about the relationships we all create together during our short lives. Are we really all that different from Drake and Wellington?
In this terrifying, small, stupid world, we wade through each crushing day by making a choice to love. Wellington and Drake made a choice. I hope it was a good one.