Thursday, December 10, 2015

A saved penguin who becomes friend and confidant

Brenna Maloney is the editor of National Geographic Explorer and a wildlife rehabilitator volunteer for City Wildlife. 
Tom Michell seems like the sort of fellow you’d like to have dinner with sometime. He would no doubt regale you with fascinating tales of life in Argentina during the 1970s: living with high inflation and the collapse of the Perónist government, hiking in the high Andes, wandering the snowy, pine-covered wilderness of Tierra del Fuego. Oh, and he might tell you a little bit about a Magellanic penguin he used to know, too.

In 1975, Michell was a 23-year-old Englishman living in Quilmes, a suburb of Buenos Aires. He’d just accepted a post as assistant master at a prestigious boarding school. He had gone to South America, he writes in “The Penguin Lessons,” with the express purpose of “meeting people, exploring places, and seeing wildlife far from my knowledge and experience.” He made the most of his free weekends and breaks from school by traveling as much as he could.

It was during a weekend visit to Uruguay that he happened upon the penguin. Several hundred, in fact. He did not, at first, recognize them to be penguins. What he saw were black, unmoving shapes littering the beach. As he stepped closer, he discovered that they were penguins covered in thick, suffocating oil and tar. He’d heard no reports of an oil spill. Perhaps an oil tanker had washed out its tanks in transit, and the penguins had been caught in the wake. Whatever the explanation, the effect was devastating. Hundreds of the birds lay helpless on the beach. Most were dead or dying. Except one.

As Michell took in the horrifying scene, he saw a tiny movement out of the corner of his eye. One bird was still alive. Michell rushed over. The tar-soaked creature was lying on its belly, but holding its head up and slightly moving its wings. As Michell approached, the penguin struggled to its feet — defiant in the face of its debility. It glared at Michell with an expression he took to be rage at what had happened to it and its brethren.

Moved by panic and compassion, Michell scanned the beach, looking for anything that he could use to help the bird. Finding only a paper bag, he covered one hand with the bag and stormed the furious bird, gathering it up by its feet. Then he ran, with only a vague notion of getting the bird to safety and cleaning it off. With the 10-pound penguin dangling at arm’s length and protesting, Michell hurried back to the apartment where he was staying.

He used a variety of agents to rid the penguin of tar: butter, margarine, olive oil, cooking oil, soap, shampoo and detergent. A lengthy struggle ensued, resulting in a bathroom covered in tar, Michell bleeding profusely from a penguin bite and the penguin still badly soiled. But Michell was undaunted and continued his efforts. By the time the penguin resembled a penguin again, both man and beast were exhausted.

Michell had no confidence that the bird would live through the night. But when he woke up the next morning, the penguin was calmly waiting for him in the bathtub. And it was hungry.

So began Michell’s relationship with Juan Salvador, or as he translates it, John Saved. Michell’s initial and impetuous thought was only to help the penguin survive. But soon he faced one difficult decision after another, starting with: What next? Should he take the penguin back to Argentina with him?

When he tried to smuggle the bird into the country, Michell demonstrated his wit and the lengths he was willing to go to ensure the penguin’s safety. Already, the bond between man and bird was strong. Once home at St. George’s College, a new world awaited Juan Salvador, and the penguin met each ad­ven­ture — socializing with visitors, consoling the housekeeper, cheering on a sports team — with aplomb. He was inquisitive, fearless and rather adorable.

For all that, this tale isn’t really Juan Salvador’s. While the penguin is central, he is merely the unifying figure. The main characters of the book are the people in Michell’s life who encounter and interact with the bird.

How quickly the students at the college took to their guest, sharing the responsibilities of feeding and looking after Juan Salvador. The dorm housekeeper turned Juan Salvador into a trusted friend and confided her problems and worries to him. The rugby team adopted him as a mascot.

Inexplicably, this mute little creature brought out the best in all who crossed his path. With his swimming prowess, Juan Salvador unlocked one shy boy’s hidden talent. Another boy, who was lovestruck, asked Juan Salvador for advice: Should he ask the object of his affection out? Juan Salvador’s intense, unblinking stare was all the boy needed to make up his mind.

Michell had gone to South America in search of the exotic. He found that and more. This strange bird helped him make a home for himself in a faraway place — a life rich with good friends and exciting adventures. Which is why the manner of Juan Salvador’s death was so difficult. Michell was away on holiday when the penguin unexpectedly died in the care of a friend; he never had a chance to prepare for his death or say goodbye. Their relationship spanned only eight brief months, but it left an indelible mark on Michell and the many others who shared in it.

The Penguin Lessons
What I Learned froma Remarkable Bird
By Tom Michell Ballatine.
219 pp. $22


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