Thursday, November 8, 2012

On Penguins... #musings

Picture: Wiki Commons

When I was a wee sprog, one of my life’s ambitions was to be a game ranger. While I may not have gone on to study nature conservation, being a writer occasionally allows me to indulge in some of my childhood dreams. (That’s when I’m not chained to my desk as a sub-editor, which is what pays the bills.) I’ve been all over the place—have had a Guinness in the Gravity Bar, eaten swordfish in Mauritius and I’ve tracked white lions in the Karoo. Sounds glamorous, but the cool stuff doesn’t happen nearly as often as I’d like it to.

The other day I was chatting to some bookish folks on Twitter, and the subject of penguins came up, and yes, I have a penguin story for you today (because I have a habit of having the occasional adventure, okay).

Let me introduce Spheniscus demersus, otherwise known as the African or jackass penguin. In Afrikaans we call them the brilpikkewyn, which sounds way cooler, if you ask me, and they really do sound somewhat like donkeys. My ouma loved penguins, so much so that she was an avid supporter of Sanccob (, an organisation that rescues these wonderful birds.

Now back track to 2000 when the Treasure oil spill disaster struck the southern African coast. I mean, we get oil spills often, but this was one of the big ones. I had just graduated the year before, and was still looking for a permanent job, so my sister, a veterinary nurse, pounced on me and dragged me out to Sanccob’s headquarters on the West Coast. She was volunteering to help treat the oiled penguins, and they needed extra hands.

“Come clean penguins,” she said. Who could say no to a request like that? It was better than waiting tables. Luckily for me my boss at the restaurant where I worked gave me the week off. Penguin wrangling, here we go.

Suitably togged up in oh-so-sexy green oilskins (I felt like a fisherman), I rolled up my sleeves... and, oh, and thick rubber builders’ gloves were so de rigueur. Those damn birds’ beaks are razor sharp. And those oilskins are necessary ‘cos not only do you get smeared in oil, but penguins, excuse my French, don’t give a shit about where they shit. But don’t worry, after a day you don’t care about that. And everything smells of fish by the time you’re done. EVERYTHING.

When we started, volunteers had brought in about 3 000 or so oiled penguins in. I thought, “Gee wow, that’s a lot.” How the hell were we supposed to get through this amount? It seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

Our first task was to tube-feed charcoal and electrolyte solutions. This was to counteract the poisons from the birds ingesting oil while preening and also to rehydrate them (oiled penguins can’t go fishing, so therefore they can’t eat and slowly starve to death). Tubing is easier said than done. Our method involved a pair of volunteers. One to catch and hold a bird between his knees. The other to feed a plastic tube down the bird’s throat so that the liquids could be administered.

Well, you try holding a wriggling beastie the size of a muscular rugby ball complete with flippers. All while managing the sharp end. I very soon had beautiful sets of bruises all the way up both arms. Then I received bruises on top of bruises. And a few lacerations for my pleasure. A penguin bites with the same ferocity as slamming a door repeatedly on your affected body part. Only the beak concentrates the pressure. Pinch the soft flesh on the inside of your arm between index finger and thumb really hard. Hurts, doesn’t it? Now multiply that by ten and you’ve got an idea what it feels like to be bitten by a penguin. That’s when the little blighter hasn’t slapped you through the face with his flipper. And Dog forbid you bring your face anywhere near that beak like one unfortunate volunteer did. You can lose an eye.

I very soon learnt how to *not* get bitten—or at least minimize the damage by getting penguins to bite less sensitive areas. And there’s a whole technique associated with approaching a penguin, distracting it with one hand while grabbing it with another. If you’re lucky, you grab it behind the head and hold it much as one would a venomous reptile—the first time. Or you grab it by a flipper, wait for the damned bird to fasten itself to the offending hand, then grab it behind the head while it’s making a valiant attempt to crush the bones in your wrist.

On the second day that we were at Sanccob, we got a call from the folks at I&J. They’d just donated the use of one of their big warehouses in Salt River, please could we send a team of volunteers, as they had a few thousand penguins, and the South African army was now helping catch birds. A local company had donated portapools. Each portapool contained a hundred penguins. Never mind the 3 000-odd birds at headquarters, within three days we were treating more than 11 000 oiled penguins at the warehouse. And they just kept coming. I think by the time things were really in full swing there were more than 17 000 birds. I still get choked up when I think of how many birds would have died if we hadn’t given a shit about helping. Okay, so I love animals. A lot.

Thousands of penguins in a warehouse, in hundreds of portapools—try imagine thousands of donkeys braying at the same time, and people shouting orders. Chaos. Yes. But by now Sanccob was helped by a number of wildlife foundations. And volunteers were flying in from as far afield as the US and Europe. Yes, there was a bit of politics going on with trying to sort out who was in charge of this entire mess, but what amazed me was folks giving up time to just help. And businesses that donated food and supplies. Very rarely have I experienced such a sense of community spirit centred around one cause.

Feeding the penguins was another matter. For this, huge truckloads of frozen pilchards were donated (by I&J, I think, so kudos to them). Some of the penguins had experienced rescue before, and our first job was to separate birds who would feed directly from one’s hand from the ones that had to be force fed. Luckily, penguins aren’t too dumb, and many birds soon learn to take fish directly from your hands. They kinda sidle up to you, side-eyeing the fish until they grab it from your fingers and swallow it down. But getting them used to feeding from your hand results in quite a mess. I went home each night with fish entrails and scales in my ears, in my hair … even up my nose. Sometimes penguins would refuse to swallow a fish already halfway down—by vigorously shaking their heads and flinging bits of mushy fish…everywhere. To this day I still can’t really eat pilchards. A messy business indeed.

Washing a penguin is quite a job too. A big plastic washbowl is set on a surface and filled with warm water. One handler holds onto the penguin. The other wields the soap. The end result: sometimes the bird slips out of your grip but he doesn’t have anywhere to go but swim in tight circles *in* the washing bowl until you catch him again. “Slippery when wet” is an understatement in this case. But washing is perhaps the most rewarding part of the whole endeavour. A brown-black begrimed bird is revealed in his true black-and-white glory, and can happily preen himself.

Granted, he can’t go back to the sea yet—he has no oil on his feathers—but he is clean.

If another oil spill as horrific as the one in 2000 were to happen, I’d book time off work and be there at the drop of a hat. Working with penguins was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had, even if it meant sitting on a crate in a guano-filled portapool with 100 miserable birds.

But I truly hope I don’t ever *have* to do this again. While thousands of birds were given a second chance, many died too, and the damage to our environment was horrific. As for the long-term impact? I don’t know. But I’m sure an environmentalist can fill your ears with horror stories.

Penguins? Well, I’ll always have a soft spot for these ungrateful little sods. Now I like to visit them at Boulders Beach ( and like to think that future generations of Capetonians will still be able to go check out these plucky little chaps in their tuxedos. And if you visit Cape Town, I hope you do too. They’re happy dudes who provide hours of free entertainment.

No comments:

Post a Comment