Old Ladies Knit Sweaters for Penguins

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I know, I know...it sounds really goofy. Little old ladies knitting sweaters for tiny penguins; this is like the crazy woman who dresses up a squirrel, right?

It sure sounds that way, but no. For once, this is actually a heart-warming (or at least penguin-warming) tale. Instead of knitting hideous sweaters for grandchildren who wouldn't be caught dead in them or afghans for unappreciative relatives, a group of volunteers from all over the globe are putting their knitting needles to work to save oil-contaminated penguins from near-certain death.

The object of this woolen devotion is the world's smallest penguin, the fairy penguin, which is only about 33cm (13 inches) tall. The diminutive penguins make their home on a beach in southeastern Australia.

Each evening at sunset, up to 2,000 penguins swim ashore and waddle up to their sand-dune burrows, delighting more than half a million visitors each year.

But every month, nature park volunteers find one or two penguins covered in oil. And occasionally a major spill leaves hundreds in peril.

About a half a dozen significant spills have plagued the area in the last decade, including one in December 2001 that coated 360 penguins and another in 2000 that affected more than 200 and killed 12.

Usually the little penguins' waterproof feathers keep their skin dry and able to cope with the bitterly cold waters wafting in from the South Polar regions.

But the spilled oil --and the process for removing it--interferes with this natural insulation, and the penguins, who swim straight to shore after encountering a spill, are usually cold, hungry, and highly distressed when they are found. Despite volunteers' best efforts, until a few years ago many oil-soaked penguins died.

But that changed in 1999 when the nature park put out a call for knitters to outfit the cute birds with tiny sweaters. Knitters from all over the world answered the call.

The doll-size, tight-fitting 100 percent wool sweaters keep the penguins warm during the rehabilitation process and stop them from preening and ingesting the poisonous oil, and lift their survival rate to about 98 percent.

Getting the sweaters on the penguins can be tough, as the two-pound critters are more feisty than they look. They usually fight back like a teenager being forced to wear Grandma's knitting.

Free from the complaints of the recipients of their donees, the knitters can go nuts, creating sweaters in the colors of local sports teams or little bride-and-groom matching sets. Any outfits too fancy for use on actual penguins are placed on penguin dolls and sold to raise money to help clean oil from the tainted birds.

Laugh if you will, but after pouring crude oil over these poor little guys, they could use some nice warm sweaters, and the old ladies of the world are happy to put their skills to use to help them out.

Find out more about the feisty old birds who help out the feisty little birds.




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