- Saying Lorraine Kelly is penguin obsessed she says is an understatement
- She therefore was thrilled to take part in a new four part series about them
- Penguin A&E begins on Tuesday at 9pm on Channel 5
To say Lorraine Kelly is obsessed with penguins would be something of an understatement. ‘Look, here’s my penguin key ring that I keep all my keys on,’ she says, emptying her handbag on to the sofa we’re sharing.
‘Here’s my penguin-shaped speaker, which I use for my music when I’m travelling. I’m even wearing penguin socks!’
She also has a 5ft penguin statue named Pingu after the children’s cartoon in her garden in Scotland, which her husband Steve bought her as a birthday present.
Lorraine Kelly says that she is obsessed with penguins and so jumped at the chance to make a four part series about her favourite animal
He faces south, she says, so he can look towards ‘home’ in Antarctica and is a reminder for Lorraine of the strength of her marriage. ‘Penguins are famously monogamous, and I love the fact they mate for life,’ she explains.
‘There are four penguin statues outside the Discovery Point museum in Dundee, and I love them. Steve tracked down the artist and got him to make one for me. It’s one of the most thoughtful presents I’ve ever had.’
So when Lorraine was invited to make a four-part series called Penguin A&E about a penguin rescue centre in South Africa, she naturally jumped at the chance. ‘I don’t think they realised quite how much I love them,’ she laughs.
‘They may have had an inkling because there’s one at London Zoo named after me, but they didn’t know how obsessed I am. It was just lucky and I almost bit their hand off when they asked me.’
Penguins live almost exclusively in the Southern Hemisphere, primarily Antarctica, although some species are found further north, closer to the Equator.
Highly adapted for life in the water, these flightless birds spend about half of their lives on land and half in the oceans and their wings have evolved into flippers. But penguins are facing all sorts of dangers – especially in South Africa.
The African penguin – also known as the jackass penguin – is now officially classified as endangered because its population has plummeted in recent years. There are now just over 20,000 breeding pairs left in South Africa and 4,500 pairs in neighbouring Namibia, a decline of 61 per cent in the past 28 years, as Lorraine discovered when she visited the rescue centre in Cape Town to see the work being done by conservationists to save them.
Sitting in the shadow of Table Mountain, the facility is 40 miles from Boulders Beach, where one of the biggest colonies of African penguins – more than 3,000-strong – is based. The charity rescues all sorts of birds – including pelicans and other sea birds – but its work with penguins is arguably its most important, rescuing more than 1,500 each year. It has an operating theatre, an intensive care unit, a rehab ward and a nursery complete with incubator for rescued eggs.
‘We deal with a lot of emergencies,’ says veterinarian Natasha Ayres. ‘We have fractures, open wounds, dehydrated penguins, injuries caused by dogs and fishing nets. We’ve had to amputate, but they seem to cope with it remarkably well. They’re the funniest things too. When you’re having the worst day, you can watch a penguin waddling around and it’s hysterical. But they’re on the brink of extinction and anything we can do, we should do.’
It was a sobering experience for Lorraine. ‘These penguins live right on the beach,’ she says, ‘and unfortunately when people and penguins come into contact there’s only ever going to be one loser. People go onto the beach with their dogs, and the dogs attack the penguins. Other penguins swallow fishing hooks, or they wander onto the roads and get run over. There are some truly terrible stories on the show. There was one penguin that had lost an eye when it was bitten by a dog.’
This was Nipper, who’d been shaken like a rag doll by the dog, causing swelling around the brain. He almost drowned when staff tested out his swimming skills and he was unable to stay afloat. Thankfully, after Dr Ayres cleaned his wounds the pressure in his head was relieved and he’s since been successfully re-released into the wild.
The centre also has a roaming patrol team that looks for penguins nesting in dangerous places at nearby colonies like Stony Point, such as close to a busy road. They catch the penguins and move them to the beach where it’s safer, and any stray eggs are taken back to the hospital so they can be hatched safely.
Every year, the team raises hundreds of chicks until they’re three months old when they’re released and this year Lorraine joined them
Every year, the team raises hundreds of chicks until they’re three months old when they’re released. Because penguin chicks stay with their parents for four months in the wild, the chicks are reliant on staff for everything.
‘But the bird can start to associate food and love with a person, not to another penguin,’ says bird rehabilitator Marna Smit. ‘It’s called imprinting, and if you release a penguin like that into the wild, it won’t survive because its instinct is to go and find a person to feed it, not to go and find fish in the ocean. Once imprinting happens it’s difficult to reverse it, and sometimes impossible. So it’s always a good feeling being able to hatch an egg here and follow it right through to release. We enjoy the release as much as the penguin does.’
Because of the danger of imprinting the penguins, Lorraine was not allowed to touch any of the birds during her visit, which she found tough. ‘These penguins love people,’ she says. ‘They’ll follow you around like wee drunk men and they love anything shiny. If you’re wearing a ring they’ll follow you as if to say, “Gimme that!” And they peck you to get your attention. I’ve got a couple of bruises on my leg where they nipped me.
‘But you can’t touch or stroke them because they’ll start to think you’re their mummy, and then they can’t be released back into the wild. That was the toughest thing for me, having this lovely fluffy thing next to me, trying to attract my attention, and I couldn’t pick it up.’
Those penguins that do have to stay at the centre live out their days in luxury. ‘They have this huge pool they call the Five Star Hotel, and honestly it’s fantastic,’ says Lorraine.
‘They even have a bubble machine which they call the jacuzzi, and the penguins get served sushi platters. Schoolchildren come to see them on trips, and the penguins absolutely lap up the attention. They live the life of Riley. Money is tight there, but the people who run it work wonders.’
Lorraine was so touched by her trip she’s adopted a penguin and named him Steve after her husband. And she’s vowed to stay in touch with the centre to find out the fates of the birds she met there.
‘These little guys are funny and absolutely adorable, but they’re in trouble so we need to help them. I really admire what the people at the centre are doing, and I hope that by making this programme we can raise a bit of awareness for them. That’s my aim.’
Penguin A&E begins on Tuesday at 9pm on Channel 5.