I have some really great gift-givers in my life; those that seem to find the perfect present no matter the circumstance. But a friend of mine got me something this year that she couldn’t have known would put the biggest smile on my face. Included in a gift bag filled with all sorts of wonderful things was a package of penguin-shaped pasta.
I was about nine years old the first time I remember seeing a penguin. It was at a theme park where my family stood and watched the elegant black and white creatures dive, swim and wander throughout the habitat that had been created for them. To be honest, although I enjoyed the experience, it was the sharks, dolphins and whales that I was far more excited about and my impatience to get to those exhibits was probably noticeable.
In the years since, I have had many opportunities to see penguins but they have never been an animal I specifically sought out. Until a few summers ago.
We were visiting a large zoo the day they were opening a new penguin habitat. Long lines wrapped around the building indicating the excitement people held for seeing the flightless birds, so we decided to head to other areas of the zoo which weren’t nearly as crowded. Near the end of our day as we wandered back near the penguin enclosure, we noticed there was now a very short line so we decided to go in. It took less than two minutes and I was completely enamored.
Perhaps it was the way the habitat was designed that caused me to see penguins differently. There were no big barriers or Plexiglass walls separating the animals from the visitors, just well created pathways that kept us all where we needed to be. As a result, we didn’t have to put up with people pressing their faces against or tapping annoyingly on windows. Instead, it felt like we were given a chance to observe, not gawk at, the penguins.
I was taking some video and as I rounded a bend it seemed as if one was determined to make the shot as he (well, it might have been a she) seemed to ‘wave’ at me at the perfect moment. Now I don’t want to anthropomorphize too much here, but it made me feel like he was trying to get my attention and as a result I was seeing, actually seeing, a penguin for the first time. I gave attention to the sound, the gait, and the interaction I was privileged to witness and was now enthralled by. Awkward walker; great swimmer. Loud confrontations; obvious affection. Humorous sounding; classy looking.
January 20 is Penguin Awareness Day. Although it’s likely not the first creature that comes to mind where we live, this time of year people are encouraged to be a little more like them. Well, more accurately, to walk like them. The secret to avoiding slips and falls on the ice is to impersonate a penguin: bend a bit, point feet out slightly, walk flat-footed and take shorter, slower steps. Great advice. But there might be other ways in which it could benefit us to act more like penguins as well, at least according to those who have studied them.
Penguins are effective communicators. They are known to be quite vocal, engaging in lively conversations and even noisy arguments, but they seem to do it fairly and are able to resolve differences effectively. Even after ‘getting in each other’s faces’ they come together to protect each other from predators and from the cold weather. Their differences are set aside to ensure the safety and well-being of the wider community as they are committed to sustaining their support network.
It would be great, wouldn’t it, if this were more of the guiding principle for all of us.
Will we disagree? Of course. Argue? It’s bound to happen. Then come together? An absolute necessity. Just think how much better off we all might be if we not only walked the walk, but talked the talk of a penguin. Class and elegance at its best. That’s my outlook.