When the Liberian-flagged Rena crashed October 5th on the Astrolabe Reef, about 14 miles (22 kilometers) from Tauranga Harbour on New Zealand’s North Island, gallons of oil and hazardous materials spilled into the waters, washing up on the pristine beaches and creating an environmental disaster.
In the weeks since, nearly 1,300 birds have died as a result of the spill. But some crafty bird lovers jumped at the chance to help – knitting sweaters for penguins.
When I first saw the story, I thought it was a joke. But nope, it’s real. And it’s so darned cute I just had to share it. (And make sure you read through to the end for a link to a super cute song about sweaters for penguins.)
On October 11th, a post on The Yarn Kitchen blog said that Skeinz yarn store had “been asked to help with the penguin relief by knitting small Penguin PJ’s to help protect the birds & prevent them from preening their feather & ingesting the toxic oil.”
The directions to make the little sweaters (also called jumpers) – mock turtlenecks with slits on the sides for penguin wings – were posted on the blog and, fueled by media stories, knitters around the world stepped up to fill the request. So many sweaters poured in, in fact, that just days later they had a “critical mass of jumpers”.
The thought of a cute little penguin in a cute little sweater is … well, cute. But how helpful are the knitted woolies?
In a story on The Bay of Plenty Times website, a spokesman for the Tauranga wildlife centre, where the penguins are being cared for, said they’ve recieved the sweaters and while they appreciate the efforts don’t plan to use the knitted jumpers.
Natalie Clark, New Zealand bird and mammal keeper at the Auckland Zoo, is quoted in the story: “Putting something like that on a penguin, it’s probably only going to stress it out even more than they already are. These are wild penguins, they haven’t had any interaction with humans. There’s already enough stress on a bird without trying to put a sweater on it.”
The process of cleaning the birds does strip them of their natural oil and makes them cold, but they’re kept under warming lamps and dryers. Coupled with the warm temperatures, there isn’t a concern that the penguins need sweaters to stay warm.
But penguin jumpers have been used in the past to keep penguins from preening their feathers until they can be washed of the oil and toxic materials that coat them after an environmental disaster. So it’s not so silly after all.
The idea is credited to Marg Healy, who in 1998 was a rehabilitation officer at the Phillip Island Nature Park in Australia when a tanker spilled 1,000 gallons of oil into the Bass Strait. She’d seen the sweater idea used on seabirds in another oil spill; working with a local knitter she came up with several prototypes and eventually a pattern to create a sweater for penguins that would keep them from preening their oil-slicked feathers until they could be washed. (You can learn more, and find the pattern, in the book “Astounding Knits!”)
In 20o2, Canadian songwriter James Gordon penned a silly little song for CBC’s “Basic Black” called “Sweaters for Penguins”, prompted by a BBC story of an outpouring of penguin sweaters knitted for a colony of Fairy Penguins on Tasmania.
So not only do the penguins look cute in their little sweaters, they actually do serve an important purpose in the days immediately after an environmental disaster.
Maree Buscke of Skeinz.com told The Bay of Plenty Times that even if the sweaters weren’t used, knitting them was a way for people to help. An Australian group has already offered to take the excess sweaters off her hands.
So kudos to the folks who have taken time to knits sweaters for penguins. Your concern and efforts are appreciated!
And be sure to give the song “Sweaters for Penguins” a listen on James Gordon’s website.