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Penguins on leashes stroll Brazilian beaches

Whether they're following the anchovies, or adapting to other changes in their environment, these temperate birds are finding their way north.

By Andrew Downie / November 30, 2000



This gorgeous coastal resort is famous for surf, seafood, and the influx of visitors who come here to enjoy a carefree summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Visitors this year should prepare themselves for some strange sights: Sunny Saquarema has become a playground for penguins.

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Like sun-seeking tourists, the stocky little birds are abandoning the colder climes of Patagonia in Argentina, and heading for the beach, causing consternation and amusement among locals.

Surfers tell of riding the waves, only to look up and see a penguin swimming alongside. Fishermen can't work because so many penguins are getting caught up in their nets. People are even taking the animals home as pets.

"We always get them arriving here," says Valdir Ramos, the biologist in charge of rescuing the peripatetic penguins. "But this year it's ridiculous."

A few years ago, a dozen or so stray Magellanic penguins would find themselves thousands of miles adrift in the seas off Saquarema, a quiet coastal resort two hours east of Rio de Janeiro. In 1999 the number rose to 50. This year more than 250 penguins have turned up.

Experts are unsure why the birds are suddenly arriving north in such numbers. One theory is that geographic or climate changes are prompting the animals to set up colonies in more northern climes. Another more likely suggestion is that the anchovies they feed on are coming farther north than usual and that the penguins are simply following them.

Equally mysterious: Why are the animals appearing only in Rio and not in other areas along Brazil's southern coast? Mr. Ramos jokes that the penguins are not stupid, they want to spend some time on the famously golden beaches that make the sultry Brazilian city one of the world's premier holiday destinations.

And he is right when he says the ones who make it to the sand are the lucky ones. The majority of those that leave Argentina do not last the distance, and most either wash up dead or die soon after coming ashore. Those that do survive are exhausted after swimming more than 1,800 miles, and a large number have skin diseases, are weak through starvation, or have injuries inflicted by whales, sharks, or other ocean predators.

Many of those that do make it to shore are picked up by well-meaning Brazilians, who take them home and put them in the freezer or the refrigerator, or, for some inexplicable reason, on top of the fridge.

"You wouldn't believe how many people call us and say we've put the penguin on top of the fridge," says Ramos. "We've also had to tell people not to put them in the fridge or the freezer. That is terrible for them. People have good intentions, but they die of hypothermia."

Ramos has traveled to Saquarema and neighboring towns dozens of times this year to collect stray birds and drive them back to a rehabilitation center at Rio Zoo. There, they are fed and cared for to help them recuperate from the stress of their incredible journey. When they are fit enough, Ramos sends the penguins to three other zoos and research centers from which they are shipped back to Argentina.

The ones that have stayed behind with their new owners in Saquarema, meanwhile, are living la vida loca. At least two owners admitted they take their penguins swimming every day. Several take them out for walks on a leash. All of them swear they take great care to make sure their unusual pets feel at home in their new environment.

Paulo Roberto de Souza, owner of "Robertinho," buys his new pet several pounds of fresh sardines to keep him well nourished. When the animal goes for a stroll, he follows a few feet behind, looking out for bicycles and boisterous kids. At home he makes sure the cats, dogs, and chickens who share the backyard do not bother Robertinho.

Local sardine fisherman Nildo Ferreira says he cares for his penguin as if it were a dog. It has a little space in the backyard and a bucket of water for cooling down.

No one really knows how animals used to freezing water and icy winds will cope later this summer when the mercury hits 100 degrees. Mr. Ferreira has vowed to do all he can to make his penguin feel comfortable. Except, of course, send him home. That, he says, would be cruel.

"I can't let him go," says Ferreira, as he watches his bird stare longingly towards the sea. "He'll die."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society