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When Bad Things Happen to Good Penguins

When Bad Things Happen to Good Penguins

What is the film "March of the Penguins" really about? A penguin speaks out.

by

When I recently recommended "March of the Penguins" to a friend, she wrinkled her nose. "I saw it already."

"You didn't like it?" I asked, taken by surprise. How could she not like a nature movie? People all over the world were flocking to see it (pun intended). Even I -- fiercely vigilant about guarding my brain against the poison of Hollywood, who am proud to say that I never go to movies -- was enchanted, transported, and educated by this one.

"Well," my friend replied, "first there were the old penguins falling by the wayside during the march and left behind to die. Then the mother and father penguins who broke their eggs, just in sheer carelessness. And that terrible sequence about babies being kidnapped by predators, in really cruel ways, and bereaved mothers trying to steal other people's babies --" She corrected herself. "Other penguins' babies to replace her own. And cute little chicks dying of starvation or freezing to death while the parents were away looking for food, and the parents mourning. I thought it was morbid."

Susan is an avid connoisseur of 20th century American fiction -- a literary genre not known for its optimistic view of human nature. She has never impressed me as someone with a predilection for stories that end happily ever after. So how come she reacted like this to the realism of a National Geographic documentary?

"But most of the penguins survived," I said, "The grand majority of them. And the old penguins left behind to die, that was the exception, not the rule. Same thing with the eggs breaking -- it just happened sometimes, to the young, inexperienced parents."

"And the chicks dying while the parents were off stuffing themselves?"

"Excuse me," said a woman at the next table. We were at Coffee Bean in Jerusalem. "Maybe you didn't understand. The mothers weren't eating just for themselves. They regurgitated the food later on, for the babies to eat."

"Yuck," said Susan. "What a menu. And the mother carried off underwater by that horrible-looking eel, or whatever it was, that long slimy thing with the sharp teeth? How would you explain that?"

I could see Susan's point. That eel really was ugly. Nature's so ruthless sometimes. With laws like that, who needs lawlessness?

The woman sipped her Café Mocha. "Those parents sacrificed themselves for their children's sakes."

"It's not really self-sacrifice," replied Susan. "Penguins act like that instinctively."

"No deadbeat dads in this community! Remember how a father picked out his own chick among all the thousands in the crowd, just by the sound of its peep?"

"What's wrong with instinct?" This remark came from the table to our left, a man with a frappucino. "Excuse me, I couldn't help overhearing just now and I'd like to point out that those fathers went away in order to support their families, then found their way back months later to the same exact spot. No deadbeat dads in that community! Remember how a father picked out his own chick among all the thousands in the crowd, just by the sound of its peep? Even though to us, all the penguins appear 100% identical! Does the fact that a certain behavior is instinctive make it any less amazing?"

Susan rolled her eyes. "He sounds like one of those intelligent design people," she muttered under her breath. "Excuse me, sir, but everything penguins do is genetically programmed."

"So what do you expect," said the woman, "for them to have free will?"

"Well..." Susan stirred her cafe latte, scooping up some of the whipped cream and tasting it thoughtfully. "Look, what can I do, the movie depressed me. Why do they have to suffer so much? They're such lovely creatures."

ON LOCATION FOR AISH.COM

The discussion in Coffee Bean prompted me to take a short trip to Antarctica, in the hope of interviewing some of the penguins for aish.com.

Unfortunately, I arrived at a bad time -- most of the females had just left for their three-month ocean sojourn in search of food, and those who remained (mostly males) were very busy and preoccupied, taking care of their young. But one of the fathers, who identified himself only as Hmm, agreed to spend a few minutes answering questions to the best of his ability.

Isn't it about 30 degrees below zero here, Hmm?

"That's right."

How do you account for the phenomenal success of the new film about your community?

"Human beings seem to find it astonishing that they're not the only ones who have feelings. We love, we mourn, we feel happy. What our emotional life lacks in complexity, it makes up in intensity."

Why do you think we're surprised that you have deep feelings?

"Each human being regards himself as a unique individual, which in fact is the case. He also has an underlying, sometimes unacknowledged belief that he is his own creator, which is true in only one respect: he can't change his nature but he can create his own character traits. When he sees one zillion penguins -- all of us sporting exactly the same face and wearing exactly the same uniform -- going through many of the same life experiences as his own, and on some occasions behaving more nobly than he, it produces a profoundly pleasant confusion. It tickles his pride, and challenges his basic assumptions. Of course, human beings are one-up over us, to say the least, because they have free will. We penguins have none, and that makes all the difference. To have free will is a like having a little bit of the Divine Creator right there inside you. I envy you that. But humans don't face the fact that their free will is programmed into them as much as any instinct."

Programmed?

"Yes. It's such a fantastically perfect system -- all our trials and joys, the snow above and the ice below, etc., etc. -- that human beings are motivated to explain it away by saying it came about by chance. Otherwise, they'd have to recognize the existence of an Intellect greater then their own, of which there is a corollary: they might have to change their behavior in light of that Intellect."

Do your sufferings ennoble you?

"Unfortunately, no. Only human beings can be ennobled by their sufferings and by whatever sacrifices they make for each other and for the Creator. We, on the other hand, do not develop. We just do what we have to do."

Some human beings see suffering as senseless, and think that's proof that life on earth came about by chance.

"Just goes to show that humans are inexplicably blind to the unbelievable beauty of the world. I suppose God made you that way for a good reason."

You have a certain way of walking that has charmed audiences around the globe. Can you say what it is about your gait that has human beings captivated?

"We look very humble and self-effacing, the way we shuffle forward, rocking from side-to-side. We are in fact humble, but it doesn't do us any good. Because we have no other options."

Is your wife one of those who has left camp to go fishing?

"Yes. I miss Hrr but know she'll be back in 89 days."

Her name is Hrr?

"Yes, all our females are named Hrr, and the rest of us are Hmm."

It's very impressive, the way you parents sacrifice your own comfort for the babies.

"If you were one of us, you'd do the same. I must go now to track down my chicks. Goodbye."

*     *     *

Back in Jerusalem, I told Susan all about my talk with Hmm, but she thought I was making it up.

Published: February 4, 2006


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Visitor Comments: 16

(16) Paul Burnett, June 29, 2009 2:25 PM

"March" is NOT a "Hollywood" Movie!

"March" was was shot in Antarctica (duh) by French - not American - moviemakers. It is in no way a "Hollywood" movie - see its Wikipedia article. And the "eel" that ate the penguin was not an eel at all - it was a leopard seal - a fellow mammal feeding ITS young.

(15) JudithRazieli, October 11, 2006 11:03 AM

Your site

I loved the Penguin story and just found your site. Thank you. I love it and will spend a lot of time on my computer now that I found you.

(14) jpokrifc@charter.net,floyds@wenfmc.org, February 11, 2006 12:00 AM

Right on......

(13) Anonymous, February 9, 2006 12:00 AM

Shapiro's penguin piece is stunningly fine!

Shapiro's piece is so gracefully written, so funny and so deep, so philosophical. I'm saving it and showing it to my friends and family.

(12) Julia, February 7, 2006 12:00 AM

It's about how a penquin's life is about love, joy, sorrow, miracles of childbirth, relationships and their walk through life.

There may be things in the penquin's life that we don't understand, but need to accept. Just like our creator has planned for us, we may not understand why we do what we do, only what's expected of us. My family thought that it was a very enriching film as well as educational for us to learn more about the penquins.

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