The great penguin sweater controversy

penguin pair
© Phillip Island Nature Parks

Last week, I wrote a story titled, "Knit a sweater, save a penguin," about a nonprofit on Phillip Island in Australia that accepts donations of sweaters to be worn by penguins. We love knitting, saving animals and cute things. So chilly penguins dressed in sweaters seemed like a perfect trifecta of TreeHugger goodness.

Several readers and commenters promptly replied to my story with criticisms of woolly penguin garb, particularly pointing to a post on Grist titled "Please don't knit a sweater for a penguin."

It seems most of the criticisms originate from comments made by Jay Holcomb following the 2011 Rena Oil spill in New Zealand. At the time, Holcomb served as the Executive Director of the nonprofit International Bird Rescue.

Holcomb explains that his organization doesn't use sweaters while rehabilitating oiled penguins for a number of reasons, including fear of overheating the birds and stressing them out.

So, I asked Peter Dann, the Research Manager at Phillip Island Nature Parks to respond to these criticisms of penguins in sweaters--or jumpers as many non-Americans call them. The staff at Phillip Island Nature Parks has been researching methods to clean oiled penguins for the last 30 years.

First off, it's important to remember that the sweaters are used temporarily, often just until the penguin can have the oil washed off. "The jumpers are for birds in transit to the centre, which can be hours away, and for waiting to be cleaned," said Dann.

When a penguin is oiled, it loses its ability to thermoregulate because the oil mats its feathers and strips off the bird's natural oils. It has been suggested that heat lamps are better at keeping penguins warm than clothing, and Dann agrees. "Yes, heat lamps are more effective than jumpers at keeping birds warm and we use them or other forms of heating after the birds have been cleaned for the first time and thereafter."

Holcomb argues that sweaters add to the birds' stress levels. He writes, "There’s also another hazard to the sweater concept: Any handling or wearing of anything foreign to them contributes to the penguins’ stress."

© Phillip Island Nature Parks. A lightly oiled little penguin tries to preen.

On the other hand, Dann said sweaters prevent the birds from ingesting oil while preening. "Ingested oil is toxic to penguins but we don’t understand fully if it affects their physiology temporarily or permanently. Whatever the effects, it seems to us that minimizing the amount of oil ingested is a priority."

It's like the cone collar the vet uses. Most dogs and cats don't like the cone, but it seems like a better alternative than letting a pet chew out its stitches.

"Jay Holcomb has a wealth of experience in the treatment of oiled wildlife and his views are correspondingly very important," said Dann. "He’s probably right that the jumpers add stress to the birds. My view is that, the increased stress levels are more than compensated for by the advantages of the reduction in oil ingestion prior to cleaning."

© Phillip Island Nature Parks.

Dann points out that there's a further complication. Holcomb writes about rehabilitating African penguins, while on Phillip Island, they're dealing with a different species--the Little Penguin. There have been similar success rates between African Penguins without sweaters and Little Penguins with sweaters: more than 90 percent are released back into the wild. "It appears that the usefulness of jumpers may be quite different between the different species of penguins and this is the source of the difference in opinion about the usefulness of jumpers," said Dann.

For another perspective, I also spoke with Tom Schneider, curator of birds at The Detroit Zoo. Schneider is not an expert in working with oiled birds, but is familiar with the work being done at Phillip Island. "On Phillip Island, they've been working with rehabilitating birds for decades and they do all kinds of research," said Schneider. "Obviously, a bird that comes in with oil all over is pretty stressed out to begin with. I'm sure they're taking every step to be sure that they're doing this procedure in the least stressful manner with the bird's welfare in mind."

Finally, there's the issue of how many sweaters the organization really needs. As I wrote in my first story, Phillip Island Nature Parks have an adequate supply for their needs to use on penguins, since thankfully there has not been a major spill in the past few years. Surplus sweaters are used to dress plush penguins, which are sold to raise awareness and money for the organization.

"It is a great way of attracting attention to the risks of oil pollution to penguins and marine ecosystems," said Dann. "The jumpers can be purchased and the money goes to the Penguin Foundation which helps fund the wildlife hospital on Phillip Island and research into climate change effects, fox predation and heavy metal levels in Little Penguins, among other projects."

UPDATE [3/14/2014]:
Following the Rena spill in 2011, the International Bird Rescue also worked to rehabilitate Little Penguins. Data released a year later shows that they too achieved a successful release rate of over 90 percent, without using sweaters.

Good doctors and scientists will often disagree, so it's no surprise that wildlife experts may also. Both Phillip Island Nature Parks and the International Bird Rescue do important work, and have been remarkably successful at rescuing animals from man-made disasters.

Tags: Birds