Of Penguins and Men

Penguins are considered adorable creatures. This characteristic of the penguins, which shall be called the “penguin attraction”, gives an impetus for people to go to places as far as Antarctica. They are cuddly, hardworking and considered loyal (although it is not always the case). It is for these reasons that the commercialization of penguins are more and more prevalent. 

The history between penguins and men, although short, has taken dramatic turns since they were first sighted by Portuguese sailors about 500 years ago. The earliest descriptions of penguins usually referred to them as some strange kind of ducks or geese because they were ideal sources of fresh meat for sailors, just like some domesticated fowls. Alvero Vello, who sailed with Vasco Da Gama in 1497 around the Cape of Good Hope, called the penguins “otilicarios,” like the auks in the north:

“They’re as big as ducks, but can’t fly because they have no feathers on their wings. These birds, of which we slaughtered as many as we could, cried like jackass…”

It might be the first time that penguins are observed by the Europeans. The species observed is likely to be African penguin, which is still distributed in the same area to this day. People would later come to know that the description by Alvero Vello is only partially true. That penguins can’t fly is certainly true, but he didn’t notice the feathers on their wings. In fact, having feathers is an important reason that penguins belong to the class of birds since all birds have feathers.

As sailors pushed further south, more and more species of penguins were discovered and added to their menu. Having few predators on land, penguins congregated in large quantities and were fearless around humans. They began to be hunted extensively as soon as they were discovered. It was even recorded that 14,000 penguins were killed at Port Desire by Thomas Cavendish’s crews in 1591. According to his account, “Our men said that the penguins were so thick upon the Isle, that ships may be laden with them; they could not go without treading upon the birds.”

Penguins are distasteful animals. Just ask Frederick Cook, a famous physician at an Antarctic expedition. From his description, we know that penguin meat tastes like “a piece of beef, an odoriferous codfish, and a canvas-back duck, roasted in a pot, with blood and cod-liver oil for sauce.” Nevertheless, their whole body was utilized and traded, including bones, oil, eggs, meat, and skin. In particular, the production of penguin oil surged during that period. One of the most grotesque and disturbing practices was to skin the penguins and to burn them as woods. In order to obtain the oil in an expedited way, penguins were thrown into a large pressurized pot and cooked alive. During the process, their skins started to strip off, and their body oil floated on top of their flesh.

There was a line to draw in the exploitation of penguins: hunting to subsist and hunting to trade. The former was the lifeline of the intrepid explorers of the south, while the latter was truly disturbing.

In the early 1900s, things began to change dramatically. Scientists and naturalists started to expose and criticize the exploitation of penguins. It was at this time that penguins became the object of scientific research. They were also more and more appreciated by people as they made their appearances in books, films and advertisements. Different companies used the unique features of penguins to promote their products. In all these commercials, penguins were portrayed as cute and anthropomorphic creatures. Gradually, they became cherished and protected animals.

Although I’ve been looking down on zoos ever since I started birding, I have to admit that they also played an important role in publicizing penguins. Edinburgh Zoo was the first to keep three King Penguins for exhibit in 1914. Thanks to modern technology, we not only could keep penguins in captivity, but also achieved the feat of breeding these penguins in zoos.

There are still much more to learn about penguins. By studying penguins in Antarctica, scientists are answering some bigger questions that go well beyond penguins themselves. In the context of rapid climate change, especially in the Antarctic Peninsula, how these penguins respond to this changing environment might give us a clue about how other species would respond to this unprecedented change. This new research direction provides an exciting outlook for researchers.

It is no longer difficult for a person to enjoy the beauty of penguins, but something important is missing here. Part of what makes penguins so attractive is the environment that they live in, the remote, icy and barren world called Antarctica. The small confined spaces in zoos are not remotely comparable to the colossal icebergs and endless glaciers of Antarctica. It is incredible when you think about the hardship they endure every day, yet they still deal with it with so much ease and panache.

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