Monday, November 2, 2009

Penguins on a plane

Back in the 1960s, I went to Antarctica to study Adelie penguins for my Ph.D. thesis in Zoology.  The first year, I was an assistant for professors John Emlen and Rich Penney.  They had arranged with the San Diego and Milwaukee Zoos to bring back about 50 penguins, plus three seals.  The Milwaukee Zoo had built a special cold display room with a pool for the penguins.  The display had specially filtered air, because Antarctic penguins are prone to respiratory infections when brought to warmer climes.

While I was "on the ice," as they say, I was asked to find out the sex of the penguins which would later be captured for the zoos.  Males and females look pretty much the same, but you can determine sex by position during copulation--the males are on top, walking on the female's back.  Or, if you don't see the actual copulation, you can recognize females because they are the ones--of course--with the muddy footprints on their backs. 

So I marked males and females early in the breeding season with a jumbo felt-tip marker with blue dye, attached to a long bamboo pole.  The pole was necessary because penguins let you get within about 8 feet before they back off.  Some of the bolder ones charge and beat up on your shins with their bony flippers.  Ouch!

Although Antarctica is beautiful and I loved it, you can sometimes get bored, especially since there's no one to talk to but the penguins.  So as I marked the penguins, I began to dress them up a bit.  It was too tempting--those shining white breasts, with black waistcoats and tails.  I began to paint the males with three blue buttons on their breast, topped by a bow tie.  I knew the ink would eventually wear off, so the zookeepers wouldn't be annoyed.  I got pretty good with the long pole.  Touche--and another penguin was bedecked with a bow tie!

After four months in the Antarctic, it was time to ready the penguins I had selected for transport.  We had constructed plywood boxes with air holes.  There were two penguins per box--it was dark inside, and they stood upright but didn't have much room to move about.  It sounds cruel, but we had tested the boxes and found this to be the best design.  In the dark and confined, the penguins didn't struggle and became very docile.  There was no need to feed or water them, since penguins can fast for up to 6 weeks, depending on their thick blubber for nourishment.

We left Cape Crozier with the penguins in an old Sikorsky helicopter.  Then we loaded the penguins aboard a C-130 aircraft for the trip back to the states.   That's the four-engine turboprop with the huge door in the rear.  These particular planes were equipped with partially retractable metal skis, for landing on the ice runway at McMurdo.

Imagine the inside of the C-130.  It looked like a garage--metal floor and sides, the floor cluttered with 25 upright boxes in straggling rows, surrounding the three seals, lying sedated on stretchers.  A little like Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.  Along each side were uncomfortable benches of metal and webbing where I had to sit for days.

Before we left, my boss spent a lot of time arranging air conditioning at the airports on the way back.  Penguins and seals like it cool--it's easy for them to keep warm on the frozen continent, but keeping cool when it's hot--that's a real problem for them.  When flying at high altitude, the aircraft was pretty chilly--I had to wear my polar gear.  But when we landed at Fiji and then Hawaii, there had to be air conditioning hooked up immediately to cool the whole aircraft.  There was no leaving it to chance.  So I spent my time on the runway in Fiji with my polar gear on.  Not the best way to see south sea islands.

When we landed in Hawaii, my job as usual was to stay with the plane, and watch for any problems.  But what I didn't expect was reporters.  Not long after landing, several showed up with cameras--they'd heard about the special flight.  They asked me to show them a penguin box, which I did.  Then they asked if I'd take a penguin out of the box to show them.  I refused, because I didn't want to stress the penguin.  But they pleaded and pleaded, asking what harm it could do to just show them for a moment.  So finally I relented, took a penguin out, and put it down on its feet on the tarmac.  To my great surprise, the reporters produced a lay of flowers and dropped it around the penguin's neck, and then they proceeded to take pictures with flash.  The startled penguin scampered off, but luckily I was able to tackle it before it got very far.  A loose pengjuin on the runway--not a good idea.  This all shows how lax security was at airports, way WAY back before 9/11.

The rest of the trip was uneventful--we got some wonderful views of the mountains of California and Nevada, all snowy in the early spring.  It had been a grueling, long trip when we finally landed in Milwaukee.  There was a little ceremony when we turned the birds over to the Curator of Birds at the Milwaukee Zoo.

Some weeks later, he invited me to the Zoo to see how the penguins were doing.  Before going into the penguin exhibit, I had to put on a white lab coat, hair net, and dip my feet in disinfectant, because the penguins were kept in a semi-sterile environment.  One of the birds delivered to the Zoo was a penguin chick which I had hand-reared from an egg.  I was his parent.  I spotted him because he was the only one in juvenile plumage, with a white chin instead of a black chin.  I bent over, and I gave my braying, low-pitched imitation of a penguin call, waving my head back and forth.  My chick--named Gulliver--responded with his own tremulous, squeaky call, waving his head near mine.  His voice was changing, and he had fishy breath.  Our duet made quite a sensation with the zoo staff.  Over the next several years, I returned several times to have a little "head-wave" with Gulliver.

I'll have photos, when I get my scanner going.

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