Michael's Essay: The Truth About Penguins


Now I'm not the kind of man who spends a lot of his time thinking very much about penguins. Elephants, yes, but penguins not so much.

Elephants are trustworthy, big lumbering oafs that they are. There is no side to them, no false front or sense that they, because of their size, are better than anyone else.

Penguins, on the other hand, don't strike me as being very trustworthy. I don't think they can ever be counted on to do the right thing, if you know what I mean.

Of course I had a bit of a fling with penguins when I was a little kid. I loved The Penguin, the bad guy nemesis of Batman and Robin in the comic books -- and later in the television series when he was played by Burgess Meredith.

And it was fun to fill in their little tuxedo bodies in the colouring book.

They always struck me as goofy little waddling things, some kind of Disney made-up cartoon animal.

Beyond that, my experience with and understanding of penguins ended at about age 10. One
tends to move on in life as one gets older.

Then in 2005, that movie came out. It was called March of the Penguins and it became the smash hit of the year.

Not only was the photography stunning, with extraordinary footage of penguins huddled together so they wouldn't freeze to death; it had the Godly pipes of actor Morgan Freeman to narrate the great adventure.

What was particularly touching, ennobling in fact, was how the penguins practise serial monogamy and how the male parent hatched the eggs during the terrible winters when the temperatures plunged to minus 70 Celsius. The loyalty, courage and fidelity of the males was quite moving.

The penguin became something of a symbol in nature of how these birds, flightless and frankly not the sharpest beaks in the nest, could care for their young in an almost human way.

Nothing like a little anthropomorphizing to brighten your day.

Anyway, fast forward to last November and the saga of Buddy and Pedro. The Toronto Zoo bought Buddy and Pedro so they could breed a whole slew of little penguins. But it turned out that Buddy and Pedro were more interested in something else - each other. Improbably, the story of two gay penguins went round the world, putting the Toronto Zoo on the map.

Network comedians in the US started referring to Brokeback Iceberg.

When it was learned that Zoo officials were going to wrench Buddy and Pedro from each others' wing flipper things, newspapers screamed that true gay love in the penguin world should be allowed to flourish.

But then two weeks ago, a remarkable document surfaced in London.

Under the headline Depraved penguin sex antics shock expert, were the details of a researcher on the fatal Scott expedition to the Antarctic in 1910.

What George Murray Levick found on that expedition changed his life, as it will surely change our view of penguins forever after.

In fact, old George was so shocked he recorded his findings in Greek. Which must have delighted any Greeks in the Antarctic.

He found that male penguins used to hang around the outskirts of knolls "whose inhabitants they annoy by their constant acts of depravity."

He was horrified as he watched a young male trying to mate with a dead female.

There was also evidence of sexual coercion, physical and sexual abuse of chicks, and males having sex with other males. In addition to the necrophilia, Dr. Levick witnessed males pleasuring themselves.

Shocking indeed, but a scientist named Douglas Russell jumped to the defense of penguins. He, by the way, is the curator of eggs and nests at the Natural History Museum in London.
He said the penguins' behaviour was due to the young ones' lack of sexual experience.

That may be, but when you see a group of four or five teenage penguins hanging around the mall, as I have, nasty smirks on their mean little faces, you can believe they are capable of anything.

I'll take elephants every time.

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