Save a Penguin If You Can

Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty Images
Rescued penguins being released back into the sea after they were soaked in an oil spill off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, August 24, 2000

When oil gushes into the ocean, the consequences can be indelible. Individuals, ecosystems, even entire communities can be devastated, never to return to what they were before. Yet there are people who rush into the danger zone, for no other reason than to assist the wild creatures caught up in the slick. Dyan deNapoli’s book The Great Penguin Rescue tells the story of the largest wildlife rescue ever mounted. She was a penguin aquarist at Boston’s New England Aquarium when an oil spill occurred off the South African coast in 2000, and she immediately volunteered to fly to Cape Town to help with the rescue. As one of the few people on the planet with expertise in handling and caring for sick penguins, she would have a large part in what followed.

The book opens with deNapoli’s arrival at the enormous warehouse in the heart of Cape Town that served as an improvised penguin rescue center. It covered over five acres, and inside were 16,000 soiled, mute, and traumatized African penguins, each of which would require many weeks of rehabilitation if it were to have a chance at survival. They had all, she later wrote, been “ripped from their nests, their mates, and their chicks, then tossed haphazardly into random holding pens.” The cause of their misery was a relatively small oil spill of around 1,500 tons. But the size of the spill is no guide to its impact on seabirds. The recent Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was, at around 580,000 tons, one of the largest recorded. But since it occurred when migratory birds were absent and in an environment where the oil degraded quickly, it affected only around six thousand seabirds. The much smaller Exxon Valdez spill, in contrast, occurred in a region dense with seabirds where the oil degraded slowly, and so resulted in the deaths of a quarter of a million birds. The timing and location of the South African Treasure spill could not have been worse for one of the world’s most-loved birds.

The tuxedo-like plumage, upright posture, and extraordinary devotion of penguins to their families appeal deeply to many of us. The animated movie Happy Feet, which is based on the life of the emperor penguin, was the third-highest-grossing animated film of all time. Quite apart from introducing penguins and their ways to a vast audience, it brought to the fore their plight in a world increasingly dominated by human activity, and in which threats to them only continue to multiply. As great as the threats portrayed by the film were, they pale when compared to those documented in The Great Penguin Rescue.

In June 2000, for the African penguin, the threat took the form of the…

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