It was a simple quip at a company holiday party that started me on the topic of penguins. More specifically, partygoers were questioning a co-worker who had recently returned from a trip to South Africa, during which she had occasion to be in close proximity to a colony of Black-footed Penguins, whether they were “nice” or not. Without waiting to hear the answer, another opined that the myth of cute, cuddly penguins is merely a human construct, made to fulfill our own fragile emotional needs. I replied that I had heard they were known to be curious, but that this wasn’t exactly the same as being nice. A number of others, with the certainty that always seems to accompany the consumption of adult beverages, chimed in with their own additions to the now spirited “Penguins: Nice or Not?” debate.
It was at that moment that another reveler, who had sidled up silently to the group, shared his own tidbit of penguin-related knowledge:
“I heard that they sometimes go crazy. Seriously, I saw it on a documentary. Every now and then, one of them will just wander off and never come back.”
As you can imagine, the conversation pretty much ended right there with people nodding uncomfortably, murmuring their “hmms” and “huhs” and hastily shuffling away, myself included. But, in fact, this is exactly the kind of dark, quirky fact that tends to stick with me – and stick it has – for the three days since I heard it. Not surprising to those of you who know me, I’ve spent some of those three days trying to verify if penguins really do lose their minds and waddle off into the abyss alone.
It turns out that this puzzling assertion comes from a 2009 Werner Herzog documentary entitled “Encounters at the End of the World” which chronicles the work of scientists and researchers living at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. In one scene, while Herzog is interviewing one of the researchers about the dynamics of the adjacent colony, the camera cuts away to footage of a group of penguins heading for the open water. As they begin their long and arduous march, one turns back and returns to the nesting area. Another, however, stops in his tracks and looks back and forth between the two directions – one leading to the oceanic feeding grounds and one back to the collective safety of the colony. He seems, from all outward appearances, unable to decide what to do until he finally turns in a third direction, toward the mountains, and begins walking alone toward an almost certain death. Upon further questioning, the researcher insists that, even if the penguin had been placed back in the colony, he still would have wandered off again, on his own, in the same manner.
Apparently this happens with some regularity.
A penguin goes crazy.
I know what you’re thinking, you astute and skeptical readers. Surely there is some sound biological rationale for this strange and disturbing phenomenon. I will tell you that scientific explanations are hard to come by, but the sparse sampling of hypotheses I have found suggest that penguins possibly exhibit this behavior when they sense that they are about to die, just as many other species of animals are known to do. There is also a rigid line of thinking in the traditional psychological disciplines, of course, that humans are the only species with adequate consciousness to experience and act on things like depression and anxiety, and that we superimpose these feelings onto animals when, in reality, they are only capable of acting on basic stimulus and instinct. The case of the wayward penguin, in this vein of thought, is nothing more than a sentient creature getting its instinctive wires crossed and following a false impulse in the wrong direction. Any emotional implications we experience from witnessing such an act in nature, then, are entirely of our own conjuring.
I’m not going to try to settle the debate about whether animals have human-like emotions here in this brief and woefully under-researched blog post. I’m content to leave it to the scientists stationed at McMurdo to figure out the mystery of why, every now and then, a penguin will stop dead in his tracks, take one last look back at everything he has ever known, turn toward the mountains, and set off alone into the unknown.
It really doesn’t matter to me, in the end, whether he was driven by instinct or emotion, impulse or purpose, confusion or resolution.
It’s just that there are some days I feel a lot like that penguin.