Sunday, May 1, 2016

2016 Connecting with Animals Calendar – May Story



Scout (L) and Lafawnduh

Penguins!! This month's featured animals are a pair of young African penguins who are part of the colony of 23 currently residing at the Toronto Zoo. And why does that make me excited enough to put the first word in bold and italics with two (2) exclamation points, you may ask? Well, it's because....ha ha ha, oh come on. Is there really anyone reading this who is legitimately asking that question? "The Grumpy Penguin", "Wandering Penguin", "pengo_steve...", penguin costume, penguin collectibles, Mario Lemieux sweater....the list goes on and on. Penguins have long lived atop my list of favourite animals – although these days they are certainly being pushed hard for that honour, if they've not actually been caught. But I don't expect they will ever finish out of the running, not after this many years.


Biff! Squish those sno-bees!
I can't be 100% sure when my affinity for penguins actually began, but I have an excellent idea of when it took a firm hold in the consciousnesses of all of my friends and family. In 1982 Sega released an arcade game called "Pengo" where the player controls a little red penguin with a joystick and single button. The object of the game is to run around a maze of ice blocks, avoiding and squishing (with those blocks) the evil "sno-bees", while also trying to line up the three blocks marked with diamonds before the round ends. (An incomplete screen shot is shown at left.) In 1983-84, after a crushing relationship failure, I spent very likely weeks of my life at the Innis College pub at U of T, playing a tabletop version of this game either solo or with various friends, the most common being Brett MacMillan and Steve Palmer. I developed a tendency to exclaim "biff!" when I squished one of the nasty little blobs between ice blocks; to my horror, Brett decided that "Biff" should become my nickname. Even before the Back to the Future series had begun, I knew I was not going to be happy with this moniker unless we "dressed it up" a little. Between the two of us, we worked out that it needed to be spelled with only one "f"...but also a silent "3" for some reason which I am certain was the Funniest. Thing. Ever. ™ at the time of its creation. But even that wasn't "special" enough. No, we decided to make the "3" a superscript. And capitalize the "F". Thus, my nickname for the remainder of my 20s and a good chunk of my 30s was "Bi³F". This appeared in salutations, on invitations, on the backs of hockey sweaters, on a set of personalized licence plates, and even engraved on my bowling ball, complete with superscript. Yes, folks, we were that nerdy. Yes, I said "were". Ok, shut up. Now you're all just being mean.


If you see this bird, do not approach it!
In any event, the die was cast. From then on – continuing even through the present time – whenever anyone was looking for a gift for me and didn't know exactly what to get, they defaulted to something with a penguin on it. Over time I collected and received enough knick-knacks to fill a small room, with the majority of them being stuffed penguins of one kind or another. Obviously this has been just fine with me – I mean, I named my business after the animal – and as far as I am concerned it can go on forever. But from time-to-time (especially just before our move in 2014) I have had to jettison a large quantity of the items before they take over our lives completely. I have often wondered what goes through the mind of Value Village workers when they open up several blue recycling bags filled to overflowing with penguin stuffies. But even after several purges of various degrees of ruthlessness, I still have many lovely and meaningful penguins in my possession. And I'm ok with that.

But enough of my own personal back story. This post was supposed to be about the penguins at the Toronto Zoo. 


Right? Best shop name ever.
I was thrilled to see the return of the penguins to the Zoo in 2011. I don't recall for sure if Sarah and I went to see them on opening weekend, but it was absolutely within the first week they were on exhibit. Sometimes called "jackass penguins" because of their braying call (although it's certainly not unique to their species), African penguins are exactly in the middle of the size range of the 17 different species of penguin. They don't live in Antarctica, so they are never outside at the Zoo in the winter, much to the surprise of a healthy percentage of our visitors. In point of fact, they sometimes have to stay indoors through part of the summer as well, because they need a very temperate clime to survive – which I hope they do for a long time; however, their future is, sadly, quite grim at the moment due to overfishing (among other issues). The penguins at the Zoo are thriving right now, though, having increased their numbers from an original 12 to the current 23 (at last count). And even though it long ago closed up and moved away from their exhibit, the shop that opened up upon their arrival had quite likely the greatest shop name I have ever seen. 


Scooby (Doo), the clear favourite of at least one keeper
For those of you who received my 2016 Calendar from the first printing, I apologize: I did not print the names of the penguins in the May photo because I simply did not know which ones they were at the time it went to press. I have since found out (Scout and Lafawnduh, as I labeled at the top of this piece) and have also established the identity of the animal in a later photo, which I will divulge when the time comes. (I'll give you a hint: it's next month.) I showed the photo to one of the penguin keepers and they instantly were able to tell me who was who, because each of our penguins wears a different colour (and style) band on one flipper. This is especially essential at feeding time, which I was fortunate enough to help out with back in December while I was a "Keeper for a Day", something I had purchased through a silent auction on Vulture Awareness Day earlier in 2015. I held the clipboard and recorded each fish that each penguin received during the feedings (which I took part in twice!) and was thrilled to be able to interact with a couple of the more inquisitive birds, especially Wolfgang. The penguin in this photo is Scooby, who is a bit of a miracle bird because he probably shouldn't have survived into adulthood. He is noticeably thinner than the rest and because of his....wait for it...."pluck".... (yeah, sorry)... he is the particular favourite of keeper Kim. He is kind of adorable, for sure, but my own favourite will likely always be Eldon, who was the first one born at the Zoo a couple of years ago, and had no siblings (but had to watch the twins Chupa and Matata cavort in the pen right next door) so I took every opportunity to drop by the nursery and play with him through the glass (finger wiggling, light flashing, shadows, that sort of thing). And even though I say "him", it turned out much later that Eldon is a girl, but only after "he" laid an unexpected egg!


Ashley and Squeak. (Squeak is the penguin!)
Two years ago, I was thrilled to discover the Zoo was trying something new. Every day during the summer there is a penguin talk and feeding at 12:30. In 2014, this was followed daily (weather permitting) by a close encounter with one of the juveniles, which two of the keepers would carry out to a fenced-off area near the entrance to the exhibit, put down on the grass, and let run around for a bit while they answered questions or just interacted with the cute little creatures. This has been one of the highlights of my time at the Zoo and I made sure I dropped by the 1:00 "meet and greet" every chance I had. I am pretty sure I ended up with photos of every penguin in this program except for one, as I showed up a couple of dozen times at the very least. Last year they suspended the idea for the summer due to the concern over the avian flu, which invaded Ontario in the spring and caused myriad concerns for the Zoo. Every outdoor bird was late to appear on exhibit if they appeared at all; the peacocks who roam the grounds – a long-time staple of summers at the Toronto Zoo – never came out of their holding at any time. I knew I missed them (although the chipmunks, free of competition, certainly thrived) but had really no idea how much until I heard one of them call out for the first time a couple of weeks ago. It's not just the sight of them that really means summer at the Zoo, but the sound. In any event, I take the return of the peacocks as a very good sign. Perhaps we'll again have the chance to get up close and personal with my favourite little waddlers this summer. 


Next month: another "missing" name revealed, along with a really cool backstory to the photo. In the meantime, I'll leave you with this video which proves, once and for all, that penguins really can fly. Just not in the air.







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