The Great Penguin Sweater Caper of 2014

Oh what big hearts knitters have. We knit caps for kids in the cold, blankets for children who have lost their homes to fire or are hospitalized, prayer shawls for people battling cancer. I could go on and on.

Not surprising when a post about penguins in need of sweaters appears on Facebook it goes viral. Today I saw 3 separate posts. Aided by the animal lovers the appeal is irresistible to many.

Warning: penguin sweaters or jumpers are not needed at this time!

Warning: penguin sweaters or jumpers are not needed at this time!

And sort of not true.

If you are just finding out penguins slicked with oil do not need sweaters, I know how you feel.

I was in Auckland, New Zealand during 2011 when the non-stop coverage of the Rugby World Cup was interrupted to announce the Rena cargo ship disaster. In what seemed like slow motion the Rena ran aground off shore of the port in Tauranga (SE of Auckland) on the North Island. The fate of the cargo was not known for weeks but the oil on board started leaking immediately.

The local residents also responded immediately. I became fascinated with the rescue effort. The local iwi (Maori tribe) organized themselves and others to go to the shoreline and wash rocks! Local wildlife conservationists with oiled bird experts around the world converged on Tauranga to stage an impressive rescue operation. They quickly focused on the little blue penguin (the actual name and accurate descriptor).

Flashback to 2000 when a similar oil spill occurred 1300 miles away on Phillips Island in Australia and knitters responded to the call for sweaters to aid the penguins. The response by knitters was so overwhelming the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation ended up with a lot of excess sweaters.

Just days after the Rena crisis someone posted the penguin “jumper” (sweater) pattern on Ravelry (a popular knitting website) and the Skeinz wool shop in Napier offered to collect them. This was all based on “a friend of a friend” hearsay about the rescuers’ need. Too late, it went viral and hundreds of sweaters poured in from around the world.

I was so fascinated with the plight of the little blue penguins I even wrote it into my mystery novel as a sub-plot. I also fell in love with penguins. So fast forward to December 2012 and I am on a road trip with UK Sarah and we are staying at the Mt. Tutu Ecolodge near Tauranga. I asked several places in town for more information about the penguins and came up with no leads. I mention this to my host Tim Short. Serendipitously he was integrally involved in the rescue. I naively and enthusiastically asked him about the sweaters and then I learned the truth. They did not use any of the sweaters. The birds were understandably under duress and dressing them up in sweaters increased their stress. Instead they used warm water and heat lamps and lots of baths.

I had to let go of a cherished belief that knitters made a difference for the penguins. Nonetheless, the rescuers results are very moving. Everytime I watch this video I get emotional.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/wildlife/8957818/New-Zealand-oil-spill-penguins-released-back-into-the-sea.html

The response to the call for penguins jumpers is always met with terrific enthusiasm. It gives us something tangible to do when confronted with uncontrollable circumstances. We cannot realistically foreswear using oil and oil byproducts so we all bear some of the guilt from any spill. Knitting a wee sweater allows us to help our “neighbor” the penguin and feel a little bit better.

Knitting a penguin sweater is easier than stopping deep sea oil drilling.

Knitting a penguin sweater is easier than stopping deep sea oil drilling.

This latest call for sweaters is not a prank. Remember the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation in Australia?  They used their excess sweaters from 2000 on toy penguins and sold them as a fundraiser. Recently they asked for help in knitting more to continue to use them on plush penguin toys. Somehow that was lost in translation as the story went viral.

People mean well.

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