For nearly 40 years, guests arriving at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa have been greeted by a group of penguins that, while perhaps charming in their feathery faux tuxedos, aren’t exactly associated with Hawaii.

Maui locator map

Now, questions swirl around the future of the resort’s colony of African black-footed penguins and whether those flightless birds, an endangered species, will continue to waddle and swim around an enclosure in the Hyatt’s main atrium.

A request by the Hyatt before the state Board of Agriculture to import four more penguins failed to pass last week, even though the Maui resort says it needs the added birds so that they might continue to breed there and keep the colony’s numbers sufficient.

The request comes amid shifting trends in Hawaii about tourism and how important it is to deliver an authentic visitor experience.

Honolulu Zoo African Penguin Demersus penguin.
African black-footed penguins waddle across their enclosure at the Honolulu zoo. A longtime separate colony housed at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa for commercial use recently came under debate by the Board of Agriculture. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

On Maui, the six penguins currently living in the resort atrium – three males and three females – were bred from parents that had been imported years earlier after the resort secured the proper permits, according to state agriculture officials. The resort says it wants to keep breeding the birds and keep its exhibit going indefinitely.

They’re prominently featured on the homepage of the Hyatt’s website, which markets the resort to potential customers.

However, state agricultural board members expressed reservations at their Tuesday meeting against importing exotic animals into Hawaii for commercial use and entertainment.

“It sounds like the Hyatt has done a good job over the years” taking care of the penguins, said Diane Ley, who represents Hawaii island on the board. Nonetheless, the request is for entertainment – and any educational value to keeping them there is a stretch, she said.

Further, the Hyatt’s request to sustain the exhibit “really raises the conflict of the trend that’s going on here in Hawaii with the public,” Ley said. “Our public policy is shifting, and it’s shifting rapidly to encourage … authentic local and Hawaiian practices and experiences to better inform visitors of what it means to be in this place.”

Board member James Gomes questioned what tourists take home from their visit. “What did I learn when I was here in Hawaii nei, in Maui? I looked at penguins.”

Board member Randy Cabral supported the request, however. He noted that just last year the board approved a request by the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort to import two mute swans there.

“I don’t see the difference between these two,” Cabral said. “Why one and not the other?”

The board voted 5-4 in support of the request, but that fell one vote short of the six needed to approve the penguins’ import.

A new board member, Ania Wieczorek, abstained from voting Tuesday because she had not had a chance to read the application materials. However, Wieczorek expressed reservations similar to those of the members who voted against.

‘A Part Of Our Family’

Officials with the state Department of Agriculture’s Plant Quarantine Branch, which recommended that the board approve the Hyatt’s request, say there’s no record of any regulatory problems with the penguins kept at the Maui Hyatt.

Neither Povi Carisa-Abney, the Hyatt’s wildlife supervisor, nor other officials at the resort responded to requests to comment on their request before the board.

However, Carisa-Abney told board members on Tuesday that the resort’s penguin colony represents “an opportunity for us to share an appreciation of animals all around the world.”

“We are making moves to include and appreciate more of our native animals as well,” she added.

The penguins, whose natural habitat lies along the South African coast on the other side of the globe, represent “a very large part of our image” and the resort hopes to keep the exhibit going so future visitors can appreciate them and see how “they tie into our Hawaiian culture as well,” Carisa-Abney said.

Penguins at Maui Hyatt Resort
The penguin colony is a big part of the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa’s image and marketing, as evidenced from this screenshot taken from the resort’s homepage. Screenshot/Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa

The Hyatt wants to follow the penguin standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which call for a minimum of 10 of the highly social birds in an exhibit, according to Carisa-Abney.

“This recommendation supports the importance of the social structure in a penguin colony and allows the birds to select mates and establish a social hierarchy,” the AZA said in a 2014 report.

The enclosure at the Hyatt is designed for 12 to 16 penguins and can be “restructured” to house up to 20 of the birds, according to the resort’s application.

The board could take up the matter again at a later date since its vote Tuesday technically left the request unresolved, not denied.

It’s unclear what the Hyatt will do next, and whether it would disband its penguin colony if it’s ultimately forced to keep it limited to just the six birds.

It’s also unclear whether it would be harmful to those six penguins if they were to be separated at this point. An AZA representative on Thursday said its affiliated penguin experts would likely be “hesitant” to weigh in on the matter since the Hyatt isn’t accredited by the association and those experts wouldn’t be familiar with the facility or the birds.

Education Versus Entertainment

African black-footed penguins are displayed at the Honolulu Zoo on Oahu. On Maui, there’s no similar municipal zoo. In general, there’s a limited list of exotic animals besides penguins eligible for resorts in Hawaii to display.

Lions and tigers, for example would not be eligible to exhibit for entertainment due to the excessive public safety risk, said Jonathan Ho, chief of the state’s Plant Quarantine Inspection and Compliance Section.

Overall, the board doesn’t often get requests from resorts to import such animals for entertainment purposes, he added.

About a decade ago, the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki also housed African black-footed penguins, but after several years the resort shipped the animals to Maryland, according to Ho. He wasn’t sure why the resort chose to make the change, but it wasn’t due to any regulatory problems, he said.

“They were kind of moving away from that for whatever reason,” Ho added. Officials with the Hilton in Waikiki did not respond to a request for comment.

Ho said his state branch was confident in the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort’s ability to safely house the swans and the Hyatt Regency Maui’s ability to safely house the penguins.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “In our eyes (the swans and penguins) are not much different because both facilities can safely contain animals from escape.”

Ho acknowledged, however, that the state’s agricultural board has broad discretion in deciding whether to approve the requests to import those animals.

“I think there’s a lot of current thought about what the Hawaii experience is,” Suzanne Case, chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said in an interview Friday. She also sits on the agricultural board as an ex-officio member, and she voted to deny the Hyatt’s request.

“I think there’s interest on the Hawaii side in portraying Hawaii in a genuine fashion. Exotic animals are not that,” Case said. “Many people are obviously interested in seeing exotic animals around the world, but are we doing that as an educational experience or as an entertainment experience?”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

Support nonprofit, independent journalism.

During this election season, we hope that our coverage provides you with the information to make informed decisions on issues that you care deeply about.

Whether it’s affordable housing, education or the environment, these issues depend on your vote, and our ability to report on them depends on your support.

Every contribution, however big or small, allows us to continue keeping readers informed through election day and beyond. So, if you found value in our coverage, please take the next step by making a contribution to Civil Beat today.

About the Author