|Hi, Missy (and awesome photo, Meleah!)|
Missy is an African penguin who was hatched at my place of employment. You might look at her and think about how cute she is. You might look at her and think she looks like an ordinary penguin who launches poo out of her body at speeds only documented in outer space. But there is nothing ordinary about this bird.
Missy was hand-raised by humans. So the first faces Missy ever saw were that of us, the great naked apes. And while I've read only one paper discussing African penguin chick imprinting before fledgling, Missy had a very unusual "hatch" story.
Basically, Missy is a miracle bird. When trainers went to candle the egg she was in to see if it was viable, they found nothing. Always the eternal optimists, they placed the egg back and figured they'd check on it later, knowing that they'd find out it was a dud.
But on Thanksgiving day that year, a trainer heard the egg chirping. That night, it was really cold (too cold for African penguins), so all the birds had to be moved inside, which meant the parents couldn't sit on the egg. The trainers got a brooder from a local zoo, took the brooder and baby Egg-Missy home, and hatched early the next morning. Panicked, because they figured the egg was a blank and now here was an adorable chick, the trainers contacted the Audobon Zoo who gave them daily support and advice on how to hand-feed her. So Missy had a lot of exposure to humans.
|The little egg that could.|
However, it is pretty common practice in both zoological and rescue scenarios to hand-raise African penguin chicks, and they wind up becoming perfectly acceptable members of penguin society later in life.
Missy, however, wants to be where the people are.
She has all the right feathers in all the right places. She has webbed feet that go fwap-fwap-fwap when she walks. She makes the donkey braying sound and has those crazy weird bird eyes. But she doesn't want a thing to do with other penguins.
We as animal caretakers always talk about how important our relationships with our animal partners are, and they are incredibly profound. Missy is very close to a couple of the trainers (who also happened to know her as a chick). That in and of itself is not unusual for any animal, including an African penguin. Plenty of penguin caregivers can show you hundreds of photos of them snuggling with their BFF penguinos.
But even when none of the trainers are around, Missy stands in "her" spot in the habitat, which happens to be the spot where guests can be the closest to the birds. She stands there and gets as close as penguinly possible to the species with whom she feels she rightly belongs. And this is where she begins to differ from all others.
|Missy is happiest between a pair of human feet.|
See, I am convinced that Missy is well aware of her affect on human behavior. She demands loads of attention from us and knows that she is in charge. What looks like a sweet, innocent little penguin is actually a crafty mastermind who could easily take over the world or at least the U.S. presidency but has chosen to sit this one out this year because the Oval Office chair is still too high for her to get into (and apparently they won't even consider building a ramp for any penguin-elects).
She is so cute, and is so good at luring humans over to her side. She really does want to be among us, and can draw you in like an alien spaceship tractor beam. It's even WORSE when you see her with her Favorite Trainers, because she waddles over to them immediately and snuggles. She remains glued to their legs as they walk around the exhibit in a way it usually takes years to train. But she wants to be as close as possible to her Favorites....like if she could atomically fuse with them, she would (standby for updates on this).
So someone like me, who only got to know Missy three years ago, sees this and thinks, "OH MY GOD. LOOK AT THAT CUDDLY PENGUIN!" And then I try to build a relationship with her. And then....
....I enter a complicated relationship filled with the gamut of emotions.
|And Missy is likely to blame|
When I first met Missy, she wasn't into me*. No big deal, I thought. Because I knew how birds could be, I figured I'd just have to slowly build my relationship, really watch how her Favorites were with her and take their tips, and I'd have a good rapport in no time. But no, each time I stepped into her habitat, even when I was interacting with other penguins, she'd run over and um, share her beak with my leg.
For over a year, this was my fate: enter penguin habitat, get bit by Missy, feed the penguins, get bit by Missy, watch her snuggle with other trainers later. And then one day, completely randomly, she decided to follow me around. Just like one of her Favorites. She happened to be in our locker room at the time for enrichment reasons, and she followed me into the bathroom at one point when I went to wash my hands. She let me pet her head, and snuggle with her, and talk to her, and it was really going great. She had my heart in her delicate little wings. AND THEN SHE SQUASHED IT LIKE A MEANINGLESS INSECT.
As quickly as the love came, she took it away. As I was walking around with her following, she started biting my leg. I tried to pick her up, and she continued the assault. My heart broke. I was confused. What had happened?
After similar situations happened between she and I, I realized that this was a pattern. She would get me into a sense of complacency, which I happily accepted as This Time It's Real Love, and then BAM, at a random interval, she hated me again.
I'm not the only person she's done this to. She even does this to guests.
"Come over to me," her cute face and body language says. "Come over to me, and illegally reach into/enter my habitat and pet my cute, fuzzy head."
We've found guests halfway climbing over walls to touch her. A couple of times, they've actually gotten into the habitat. And just when they think they've secured a free penguin interaction, Missy "interacts" with them, sending them into the same emotional throes of confusion I experience on a routine basis with her.
We've tried our best to get her to pair up with another penguin mate. We have a few penguins who are super affectionate towards humans, but act like real penguins and pair up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. We tried putting Missy and a boyfriend in their own private honeymoon suite for months. She didn't want a thing to do with him. We tried sending Missy and a different boyfriend on a vacation to another zoo for several months. They became roommates, but he never got out of the Friend Zone.
|Missy is masterful at maintaining the Friend Zone|
In fact, the only penguin Missy will give any attention to happens to be an adorable stuffed animal penguin (an emperor penguin chick, as it were). This has confused guests before to the point where we've had several extremely concerned suggestions for the plush like, "You should really take that penguin to the vet. It looks sick."
On Missy's 8th birthday, which was just a few weeks ago, she spent the whole day snuggling with trainers on the beach (behind a perimeter fence)...INCLUDING ME! I only got one random bite, but then it was all love love love after that. I know she'll enjoy another round of I Hate Cat at some point, and laugh as I weep over yet another failed relationship attempt. If she could fill a glass with my tears and toast to my unhappiness, she would. But when she's being a sweetheart, I'll bask in its glory as long as I can.
|There's even this photo I can cry over later when Missy wants nothing to do with me again.|
Missy knows how well she can play a human being. And dag nabbit, that's what makes her so amazing. When I hear our critics claim that we force animals to do things, I want to invite them to meet our dear penguin friend. She'd teach them an important lesson (and break their hearts doing it).
* This means she bit the %(@* out of me