My life as a penguin
They cannot come to you, so you must go to them, trekking ever southward. The cold is unrelenting.
Most days the sun barely makes an appearance: at midday the contours of the coast are shrouded in a dismal, leaden twilight while curtains of icy rain undulate across the bay.
When I finally arrive, it feels like I’ve reached the edge of the world. This is Torquay, on the south coast of England (and a prime British holiday resort), surely one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.
Not if you’re a penguin, though. For the black and white inhabitants of Living Coasts, Torquay’s harbourside zoo, the term “English riviera” holds no bleak tinge of irony—even during the so-called “shoulder season”, the brief interlude between peak and off-season.
As far as they’re concerned, this is beach weather, and the penguins are out doing what they do best: standing around in a big huddle looking in the same direction, in this particular case at me. I am sitting awkwardly on the sand just downwind from them. Here’s something they don’t tell you about penguins: they smell. After a brief stand-off, the whole group takes a tentative step in my direction. I must be patient.
Barring a last-minute monkey uprising, this year looks set to be the year of the penguin. Credit for this goes to a single film, March of the Penguins, an 80-minute French documentary about the breeding habits of emperor penguins in Antarctica, which became an unlikely summer blockbuster in the United States, and the second-highest grossing documentary (behind Fahrenheit 9/11) of all time.
The film follows the emperors’ annual 110km trek inland, where they pair up and mate as winter is setting in. The female lays a single egg that the male must balance on top of his feet until it hatches, while enduring 160kph winds and temperatures of 57Â°C. The mother then journeys back to the edge of the ice to feed, while the males ... well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.
None of the penguins currently staring at me is an emperor penguin. Only two places—the Sea Worlds of California and Ohio—keep emperor penguins in captivity. Living Coasts has 71 African, or jackass, penguins, plus 13 gentoos (native to South Georgia Island, the Antarctic peninsula and the Falklands) and a dozen or so newly arrived macaroni penguins.
The macaronis, so named after the dashing yellow eyebrow feathers, are isolated for now, but the African and gentoo colonies rub along on the same stretch of pretend beach, sharing the same pool of treated seawater pumped in from the bay.
Above us, inca terns wheel about under the nets that cover the site. A few hundred yards into the bay, local cormorants perch on a large, guano-covered rock. The penguins edge closer to me, partly because they are naturally inquisitive and partly because I’m sitting next to a keeper, Lois Rowell, and she has a big bucket of fish.
When March of the Penguins was released in the US, it became not just a hit, but the subject of intense political debate. This debate is unlikely to dog the film in other countries, but it deserves a brief summation.
The American religious right is in the habit of rating films in terms of moral content (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, for example, which features a gay kiss, was rated “abhorrent” by one reviewer). A nice penguin documentary was always going to rate highly with “red state” religious conservatives, if only for what it lacked in terms of profanity, drug references and express promotion of a homosexual worldview.
But the American family-values lobby found something else in the penguins’ struggle for survival: role models. The conservative film critic Michael Medved called March of the Penguins “the motion picture of the summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms [such as] monogamy, sacrifice and child-rearing”.
Other commentators saw it as a parable of Christian faith and forbearance. Church groups block-booked cinemas and held post-screening discussions, much as they did with The Passion of the Christ.
One reviewer, writing in the Christian periodical World Magazine, maintained that the film presented a case for intelligent design, the pseudo-science that holds that evolution alone cannot account for certain complexities in nature. This dopy assertion was echoed on various web forums: “It’s hard to watch a film like this and not see the evidence of a designer,” wrote one viewer.
The backlash that followed proved, if nothing else, how little the American religious right knows about penguins. It was noted (in the film itself, among other places) that emperor penguins are monogamous only for one breeding cycle; around 85% will find a new mate next time around. While their child care is in many ways exemplary, they tend to affect a certain nonchalance when their young are being eaten by petrels.
If this weren’t enough, it transpired that Central Park Zoo in New York had a resident pair of gay penguins, Roy and Silo, who were devoted parents to an abandoned egg.
As for the claims for intelligent design, even conservative pundits such as George Will point out that the emperor penguins’ reproductive practices seem, if anything, a little ill thought through. Antarctic penguins provide ample evidence of evolutionary development because the DNA record for a single species, preserved in frozen penguin bones, can be traced back thousands of years. The filmmaker, Luc Jacquet, was quick to distance himself from his anti-evolution fan base.
Commenting on the controversy, Laura Kim, vice-president of the film’s US distributor, said with transparent exasperation: “You know what? They’re just birds.”
Perhaps so, but the tendency to attribute human qualities to penguins is almost irresistible. “My theory is that it’s because they have a recognisable human shape,” says Phil Knowling, Paignton Zoo’s press officer. “I used to work at an owl sanctuary and we had the same thing with owls.”
March of the Penguins is certainly guilty of its own measure of anthropomorphism. The film casts the emperors’ struggle as a love story, and Morgan Freeman’s sonorous narration often strays into sentimentality.
It could have been worse: in the original French version, actors were used to give voice to the penguins. The birds plighted their troth in the language of love.
Zookeepers are not keen on this sort of over-identification with penguins, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to it. “You’ve got to admire them in certain ways,” says Tony Durkin, senior keeper at Living Coasts. “They’re characters. I think they have the ability to survive no matter what.” But can we learn by their example? Should we be more like the penguin? “We could be more like the penguin, yeah.”
In terms of setting an example, the penguins of Living Coasts are a damn sight more faithful than emperors. All three species tend to mate for life, although break-ups are not unknown. “There have been three divorces since I’ve looked after them,” says Rowell, who accompanied the African penguins when they came to Living Coasts from (nearby) Paignton Zoo and has 20 years’ experience with them.
There has even been the odd scandal, as when Mr Pops got himself a girlfriend. “He used to visit her when Mrs Pops was incubating,” says Rowell, before going on to tell me about the time another penguin left his wife with two babies. Although “that is the exception,” she says.
Most of the birds look alike to me, but Rowell has no trouble pointing out Charlie, Vinnie, Ruby and Silent Bob. African penguins have a spray of black dots on their bellies in a pattern unique to each individual. It is impossible, however, to tell males from females without performing an internal examination or DNA test. “Otherwise we just wait until they mate,” one keeper tells me. “The one on the bottom is the female.”
That’s assuming it is a male-female pairing: DNA tests on some infertile penguins at Bremerhaven Zoo in Bremen revealed that several of their supposed breeding pairs were same-sex couples.
The three species at Living Coasts (there are 17 in all) live for up to 20 years in the wild and longer in captivity. The gentoos and Africans both nest, although the Africans tend to burrow under vegetation, while the gentoos make do with slightly sorry-looking nests made from pebbles.
Different species have different sleeping habits—some sleep in their burrows, some (such as emperors) sleep standing up with their beak tucked under their flipper. It is supposed that certain types of penguin must actually sleep at sea, although this has never been observed.
By now the penguins have gathered round the bucket and a few have wandered over to size me up. They stare, they circle, they stretch their necks. “The neck-stretch thing is: ‘I just don’t know what to make of you,’” says Rowell.
Occasionally one will tilt back its head and bray like a donkey. One of the small Africans leans in and tugs on my trouserleg with its beak. Two others take turns pecking my right shoe. A fourth penguin ducks under my arm and tries to take my pen. Penguins have an insatiable curiosity which, when you are its subject, borders on harassment. It’s like being threatened by a gang of eight-year-olds.
Later on, Durkin shows me how to feed the penguins, but it’s not as easy as it looks. The fish—mostly sprat and herring—have to go in head first, scales pointing backwards, because the penguins have barbed tongues.
Most penguins like the fish to be introduced from one side of the beak or the other, and the operation involves me putting my fingers closer to a penguin’s mouth than I am comfortable with. I wonder if they bite, but don’t like to ask. It turns out I don’t have to, because the penguins bite me.
I persist, however, because I really want the penguins to like me, even though I know they are just birds with the same intelligence as parrots.
They don’t seem like birds to me, which is good because, as a rule, I don’t enjoy being proximate to birds. I don’t think I’d be very happy sitting on the ground surrounded by 84 large crows.
I also know that it’s a rare privilege to be allowed to sit on the sand with them. Human/penguin contact is normally kept to a minimum. “We try to keep everything as natural as possible here, so we don’t build up a general rapport with any of them,” says Durkin. “If you wanted to do that, you could, but it would have to be undertaken deliberately, which would be something we don’t agree with doing here.” I understand perfectly. Can we put hats on them?
Our tendency to identify with penguins may be irrational, but it’s probably why we go to see them. “Anthropomorphism is one of those things that works for and against zoos,” says Knowling. “Zoos are so important in terms of conservation, and yet we earn our money through visitors.”
Living Coasts has fur seals, puffins, red-legged kittiwakes and rare bank cormorants, but the penguins are the main attraction. “These guys are ambassadors for their species,” says Durkin. “They show people up close what they look like. We show how they feed, we explain their life, where they come from, and that builds up a picture for people who can’t get down to Antarctica to see them.”
But the penguins aren’t just here to pull in the punters. “These birds have quite a gene pool,” says Durkin. “If anything ever did happen to the wild population, we could theoretically return birds to the wild again.”
African penguins are presently endangered, largely due to overfishing, loss of habitat and oil spills. Macaronis and gentoos are classified as threatened.
Toward the end of my time, one gentoo—Ronnie, I think—sidled up, stood alongside me and started looking in the same direction as I was. Together we stared out over the bay. After a moment he leaned gently against my shoulder. I resisted the urge to put my arm round him. We stayed like that for a while; me and Ronnie, my special penguin friend. I wonder if they have one his size in the gift shop.—Â