Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Don't Be Fooled By This Urban Legend

For some reason, there has been a recent rash of people asking about the little boy who kidnapped or stole one of the Tennessee Aquarium’s penguins. This may be one of the most interesting myths of our time according to Amy Graves, the Aquarium’s senior aviculturist. “The tale is not true of course, whether it's one of our penguins or a bird from some other zoo or aquarium,” said Graves. “Friends of mine at the Knoxville Zoo say they get asked about one of their African penguins being stolen too.” There seems to be an ebb and flow to this rumor as it washes across the country through e-mails and blogs. This story has traveled around the globe in enough waves to gain official status as an “urban legend.”

Story goes something like this: A small boy gets separated from his parents at the Tennessee Aquarium. While he is exploring on his own, he manages to sneak a baby penguin into his backpack. The child is reunited with his parents who are so relieved the child is safe that they don’t notice the abducted penguin in his backpack. Later after they arrive home, the parents are shocked to find the boy playing with the baby penguin in the bathtub.

According to Snopes.com, this myth might have originated in 1993 as one of the first viral e-mails passed from person to person. The zoo or aquarium changes from time to time, but the basic story remains the same. This website also cites the 2002 children's book, “Tina and the Penguin,” by Heather Dyer as a possible cause for re-igniting these false stories. http://www.snopes.com/critters/farce/smuggled.asp

Kevin Calhoon, the Tennessee Aquarium’s assistant curator of forests, says this urban legend has problems from the start. “First of all, not many people at the Aquarium have keys to our penguin exhibit,” said Calhoon. “So access is very restricted. But even if someone could get into Penguins’ Rock, our birds are used to certain people. If anyone else goes in there, the birds dive into the water.” Calhoon also punches holes in this story with the following points:

1. Penguins look cuddly, but they can be rather feisty. If you're ever at the Tennessee Aquarium when it's time for our birds to be examined, you'll see that it's challenging for trained keepers to catch a bird. They'll waddle quickly off or simply peck and flap like crazy. Some of the Aquarium’s penguins weigh up to twenty pounds and the larger the bird, the harder they are to handle.

2. Penguins have powerful flippers. Our keepers know how to safely subdue a bird when it's necessary to handle them. But even the Aquarium’s trained staff members respect the strong slap that can be delivered by a flipper.

3. A penguin would continue to flap, squawk and wiggle around if it was in a backpack. And that would draw everyone's attention.

4. We have not had baby penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium yet. But the “Magic Rocks” used for nesting materials will be given to the gentoo and macaroni penguins on April 1st. Aviculturists at the Aquarium are hoping that providing these rocks will trigger courtship and breeding behavior.

To help lay this urban legend to rest, two communications students from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have produced a penguin caper video recreating this urban legend. “It was fun working with the Aquarium and learning about the penguins,” said Bill Puckett, a UTC junior. “I learned a lot about the penguins,” said fellow UTC junior, Brooke Fontana. “Especially how difficult it would be to even touch a penguin without them going crazy.”

The video can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r6gAJD5DLWM

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