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9 february 2011
Unlike oysters, octopuses, snails, and eels, penguins have never formed part of my diet. Now, I'm sure there are some Americans alive today who have eaten penguin. Penguins are in fact famously edible. Some populations have been hunted to extinction to feed sailors and seacoastdwellers. A similar bird, the great auk, was eradicated by fried-auk fanciers. But for once, when reading a book about an animal, I didn't think about recipes the whole time I spent with Stephen Martin's Penguin.
A relatively high proportion of Penguin consists of quotations from other texts about penguins. This disappointed me a little, but I can see why Martin chose that tack. Penguin and human habitats touch only at their edges. Most of what people know about wild penguins comes from cultural artifacts: texts, pictures, film.
All of what I knew about penguins before reading Martin's book was this: penguins can't fly in the air, but essentially "fly" through the water; and, their reproductive cycle is an odyssey of inspirational proportions, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Martin doesn't comment on penguin hydrodynamics, but he's sharp on the cultural mediations that have given us our images of penguins. Penguins are among the most anthropomorphized of animals. As inquisitive social bipeds in dinner jackets, they are perhaps inevitably cast in the human image. (Martin retells the story of Roald Amundsen going out to greet a party of strangers on the pack ice and discovering that the people were really a flock of penguins .) Penguins decorate our tea towels (131), sell cigarettes, biscuits, and paperback books (132-33), and draw tourists to the end of the earth (141).
It's fortuitous that an antarctic seafood-eating bird and a tropical omnivorous primate should resemble each other so much on the surface. It took the two creatures a long time to find each other, which perhaps accounts for the general harmlessness of penguins toward people.
Human societies have not lived in fear of penguin attacks. There are no theories of early humans crouching in caves desperate to avoid death or injury from penguin predation. (18)Humans have not been so gentle. Many of the authors quoted by Martin revel in how easy it is to knock penguins on the head with a stick. The birds have no particular fear of humans. Though some species are extremely territorial and will defend their local turf, they don't go marauding, and they'll happily share neutral ground with stick-happy hunters.
And they'll happily show off at zoos, which has led to protectiveness on the part of their human fans. Unlike some other animals endangered by human activity, the penguin may have won out in finding a way to share the planet with us, via sheer charm.
Martin, Stephen. Penguin. London: Reaktion, 2009.