Happy Feet was probably the most famous Emperor Penguin in the world — until September 9. He was a young male who swam 3,000 kilometres off course and landed on a New Zealand beach in late June. There was no snow, which Emperor Penguins eat to cool down, so Happy Feet (mistakenly) ate sand instead. His digestive system clogged up and a gastroenterologist was summoned to the Wellington Zoo. Hundreds of people watched while the doctor carefully performed an endoscopy to flush out sand and driftwood. Medication was administered to improve gut motility. X-rays were taken to gauge his recovery. The news was reported around the world.
After a few weeks of convalescence in a refrigerator dining on fish slurry, Happy Feet was ready to go home. To great fanfare, the Zoo released him, fitted with a satellite transmitter to track his triumphal journey home.
Unfortunately, on September 13, the signals abruptly ceased. The transmitter may have fallen off, or, well, something very unfortunate might have happened. “What no one wants to think about is that something in the food chain bigger than Happy Feet had him for a meal,” said an expert in wildlife tracking. “That’s what makes the world go round.”
While his treatment and care cost as much as NZ$30,000, conservationists have defended the expense as a valuable exercise in raising public awareness of conservation issues. Whether Happy Feet is still quietly swimming toward Antarctica, or is quietly being digested, we can take solace in the fact that he has been “returned to his natural environment”.
But the conservationist’s view doesn’t ring true to the broader public response. Those who work in the field are quick to point out the benefits of spending so much money on one ill-fated animal: “Wellington Zoo vet Lisa Argilla said Happy Feet was an ambassador for his species and had raised awareness of conservation issues around the world. ‘That makes every cent spent worthwhile.’”
I doubt that this pragmatic view was foremost on the minds of those who donated money to the Penguin’s rescue. The public were not moved by thoughts of raising awareness and “learning about the natural world”. It is something much deeper that gives us such sympathy for the plight of this stranded animal, which appeared, lost, in a hostile environment, haplessly eating sand mistaken for snow, its stomach and oesophagus blocked by this indigestible matter.
It’s easy to be cynical and complain about the amount of money seemingly wasted on the poor creature. It’s also easy to mistake this whole event for a bizarre demonstration of the power of popular culture: give the animal a cute name associated with a popular children’s animation, and suddenly its survival becomes the focus of national and international attention.
The reality is much more interesting. Firstly, for a number of reasons our present culture regards animals as the embodiment of innocence. Children may be vulnerable, helpless, and – at the very least – not guilty. But the moral cachet of children is limited when compared to the highly idealised nobility, humility, and innocence of the animal. Children are ignorant… for a while, and their innocence is conditional on their degree of knowledge and understanding. But a penguin will be innocent forever, because penguins are incapable of guilt, sin, wilful harm, and all the other noxious things that cloud and corrode human existence. We cannot blame a penguin for its actions, nor hold it responsible for its failings.
We are told that our ancestors worshipped and venerated certain animals, in part for their innate powers such as strength, violence, and fertility, and in part for the supernatural significance attributed to their spirits. Our contemporary reverence for animals has less to do with their strength or other powers, and more to do with their freedom from the burdens and blame that are ubiquitous in human life and culture.
This sense of the innocence of animals is heightened by the numerous ways in which humans use, harm, and abuse animals, from their slaughter for human food, to the destruction of native habitats. Once upon a time, people considered animals inferior because they were amoral. Now we may envy them for precisely the same reason.
When it comes to Happy Feet there is more than the animal’s innocence at play in the public mind. The Emperor Penguin’s predicament resonates with something very deep in the human psyche: the sense that we ourselves are profoundly lost, trapped in a hostile environment, unable to find real nourishment, unable to quench our thirst. The world’s religions attest to this, but it is not a “religious” experience. It is a fact of human nature, that we are somehow out of place, out of time, destined to fill our stomachs and our minds with things that fail to satisfy.
The penguin was in a truly pathetic situation, one that reminds us of our own deep dissatisfaction with life, our injuries, our failings, and the haunting emptiness of our own desires. The tragic spectacle of the poor creature eating sand to quench its thirst is reminiscent of some ancient religious fable from India or China; nor is it foreign to our own religious heritage. Happy Feet is only one example of our eagerness to rescue animals from absurd fates. Furious efforts to save beached wales and patient struggles to rehabilitate oil-soaked birdlife likewise indicate our sensitivity to the absurdities of our own fate as human beings: lost, stained, and weighed down by desires that fail to satisfy. It wasn’t, after all, just Happy Feet we hoped to rescue; save the penguin, save ourselves.
Zac Alstin works at the Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.