09 March 2014

Knit a jumper, save a penguin - or do you?

Update: The Penguin Foundation has responded to the issues discussed in this post in an article in The Guardian (11 March 2014)

AUSTRALIA - The Penguin Foundation's 'global callout' for knitted little penguin jumpers (sweaters) on ABC News has again raised the issue of whether these (adorable) woollen garments should be used on the birds after an oil spill.

According to the Penguin Foundation's website, 'When oiled penguins are admitted to the Wildlife Clinic at Phillip Island Nature Parks, a knitted jumper is placed on the penguins to prevent them from preening and swallowing the toxic oil before they are washed and the oil removed by staff.'

But not all wildlife rehabilitators believe the jumpers help oiled penguins. After the 2011 Rena oil spill in New Zealand, which affected little penguins, International Bird Rescue executive director Jay Holcomb posted about using the jumpers as a rehabilitation tool on the organisation's blog.

He said that because many types of oil contain toxic components that can irritate or even burn a penguin's skin, '[t]he last thing we want to do is to put something over their feathers that causes the oil to be pressed against their skin, or impairs the evaporation of the aromatics put off by the oil.'

Along with preventing them from preening, a purpose of the jumpers is to keep the penguins warm, since oiled birds temporarily lose the ability to regulate their body temperature and get cold quickly. However, '[p]enguins and other birds can also overheat very quickly, and the sweaters increase this risk,' Holcomb said.

Another hazard the jumpers pose is that '[a]ny handling or wearing of anything foreign to them contributes to the penguins' stress.'

The solution to keeping the birds warm and limiting their preening, he said, is to keep them in a warm, ventilated area.

'When birds are warm, they reduce their preening because they're comfortable ... Our research and experience over the course of hundreds of spills has shown us that when we keep them warm while they are still oiled, birds do well.' 

An update to the post this month states, 'The bottom line: While cute, penguin sweaters may do more harm than good to oiled birds.'

Jumpers sent to the Penguin Foundation may not be used on oiled penguins anyway. According its website, the foundation currently has a 'good supply' of the jumpers; 'we do not urgently require little penguin jumpers for rehabilitation'.

While it will send jumpers to other wildlife rescue centres if required, the foundation also puts excess jumpers on toy penguins and sells them as a fundraising measure, so people who knit jumpers may be helping penguins in another, less controversial, way.

The website has a knitting pattern for the jumper that keen knitters can download. The pattern may look plain, but the winners of the foundation's recent Knit to Win competition have shown just how creative and cute these penguin jumpers can be. Check them out on the Penguin Foundation Facebook page.

Sources
Knitted penguin jumpers, Penguin Foundation
Knitters wanted for penguin pullovers by Simon Leo Brown, 6 March 2014, ABC Melbourne
Sweaters on oiled birds? by Jay Holcomb, 27 October 2011 (updated 6 March 2014), International Bird Rescue

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