PETA Picking On Penguins

The People for the Ethical Treatment ofAnimals (PETA) have never been short of voicing silly,  shocking and offensive campaigns in the furtherance of their ideological animal-rights agenda and this certainly has included marine animals.  Its failed court action in February 2012 against the Sea World marine parks claiming their killer whales should be deemed slaves under the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution being a case in point.  

Recently PETA turned it’s attention to some captive Humbolt penguins that appeared in a Christmas display in Liverpool which received coverage in the UK tabloid Daily Mail newspaper: a paper known for it’s affiliation and support of animal-rights issues juxtaposed to celebrity gossip and right-wing political polemics.

The Daily Mail article can be found HERE.

The paper reported  PETA’s claims suggesting the mistreatment of the birds and the compromising of their welfare.  The birds in question were trained by the well respected zoological company which houses these and many other animals in it's own private zoological gardens; its animals have been used in many film and television programmes including wild life documentaries by the likes of David Attenbough.

It should be noted that the birds in question are all captive bred some of which were hand-reared and none where caught from the wild.  They are tamed and trained and are fully comfortable around humans and in novel situation such as the display they took part of the pre-Christmas Ice Festival in Liverpool.  When not taking part in such events they are housed in a purpose built penguin exhibit  which is of a standard that would certainly pass inspection under the UK Zoo Licensing regulations.  So much so, that the penguin group at the park have bred and reared chicks within this environment.  Therefore PETA claims that the birds are: “petrified and disoriented” when taking part in public events is clearly ill-informed.  

PETA also made much of the fact that these are “tropical birds” from Peru and Chile with The Mail adding that wild Humbolt penguins: “usually nest on the warm Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile”. 

Indeed, the wild species of this bird are found on the coasts and islands of the above mentioned countries but this environment is far from tropical as it is exposed the cold, nutrient-rich Humbolt Current which affects the sea and air temperatures in the areas the birds swim, feed and breed. In scientific terms Humbolt penguin are defined as a temperate species not tropical.

It should be noted that many Humbolt penguins in zoos around the world (including the UK) are exposed to low temperatures and experience contact with cold winter climates with no apparent ill effects to them if housed in properly designed exhibits.  

Spheniscus species of penguin on snow at Whipsnade Zoo December 2012

Further, guidelines on the care of the Spheniscus species of penguin (which include the Humbolts) recommend that exhibits have water mist systems to cool birds in hot summers as heat is far more of a problem to these birds than cold.

Perhaps as an example of told hypocrisy one need look no further than an article the Daily Mail published in August 2011 actually promoting the use of snow in the husbandry of Humbolt penguins in the Scarborough Sea Life Centre.

Perhaps one of the oddest comments made, even by PETA’s standards was: “that penguins can transmit numerous diseases that can be harmful to pregnant women”.   Unfortunately, PETA would not state which “numerous diseases” they referred to which makes it difficult to formulate any truth to this specific claim.  Indeed, many animal species including not just wild but domestic cats, dogs and farm animals can transmit diseases to humans but the likelihood of this being an issue with the penguins displayed in Liverpool seems somewhat unclear.  Moreover, with an attendant vet on hand such issues would have been addressed and if  they did pose a danger to public health it is very unlikely they would have been allow to take part in such an event.

The statement seem to demonstrates a rather sad desperation on PETA’s to not only generate false and misleading information on the welfare concerning this group of birds using emotionally loaded rhetoric but to also compound this with dubious concerns for the public health of pregnant women in Liverpool - many of which may be in more danger of disease transmission from their own domestic pets.  Although PETA itself will not be concerned regarding this matter as one of it less publicised agendas is the desire to eliminate pet keeping as they consider it and other animal use as "slavery”.

Perhaps a more disappointing result of this episode is that some members of the zoological display community seem to think PETA have a point with one comment even saying that the owners of the birds where no better than operators of the infamous roadside zoos that can be found in the USA. 

This is somewhat disingenuous as the birds themselves are maintained to a very high standard and housed for the most part in an environment as good or better than many modern zoos or aquariums. 

Moreover, zoos and aquariums have both historically and contemporary displayed and handled various trained and habituated animals including penguins within the public areas of zoos or areas outside the zoo faculties for reasons of publicity, promotion and education.   

The fact that these animals may be displayed for reasons of  promotion (as in the case of the Liverpool penguins) is not relevant when discussing an issue of animal welfare as the actual situation for the birds would be exactly the same if this was a solely educational event. Although, this is not to belittle the important role in education that good zoological collections should be undertaking, it could be reasonably argued that many people exposed to these birds in Liverpool may well have come away with a greater interest in these penguins than prior to this exposure.  Education, particularly public education, has come a long way from the days of the formal lecture or prep talks a fact that has been well recognised for many years in the development of zoos and aquarium educational programmes.