The Apocalypse of Penguin Town

You can find it on Netflix

I turned on the news, for maybe the last two minutes of the BBC. It was reliably coming through on WNYC. Some habits die hard and news for me, has to start with New York, including their broadcast of BBC news. I might be ten thousand miles away, but I know what I can rely on, and how to count through time zone changes to find it.

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I don’t know if it was a case of the Mondays or a case of too much propaganda with too little time to sort it, but I had forgotten to tune in, and the morning programs from New York were almost over. So, I let my lunch warm up on the stove a bit more and quickly I switched from my internal dramas to the ones of the world. I realize now, that I wasn’t ready for the news to come.

In those last minutes the interview was live, from South Africa. I sipped my tea. Was it sickness? a mine worker’s strike? What was going on from…Simon’s Town? Simon’s Town…the name rang through me. That’s not possible, right? And then I realized, that of course…it was. The penguins of Penguin Town, they or their families, definitely their friends — they were dead.

Dead. Penguins. Stunned. By…BEES. The words from the interview fell into my head. The words were pieces, chopped into bits that landed into my mind and settled at my heart. They cut right into the safe space of escapism that helped get me through quarantine when documentaries had become ever more important.

Because I had actually watched the Penguin Town series on Netflix, I felt attached. But I have to say, I didn’t just watch the series. I recommended it to others. I am not the overly warm and fuzzy type, but Penguin Town felt like the sweetness I needed over the course of this year. In fact, I was finding it so cathartic that I thought everyone else I knew would, too. I talked the show up, mentioned its characters, the emotions, the relationships. I explained how they felt less like members of a species, and more like individuals and a community I was getting to know.

On Penguin Town the penguins were personified, with cute names for the endangered mating couples as well as for the singles. The monikers were based on the flowers, or the topography of the location; they were a smart and dare I say adorable way of connecting to nature. Couples had love stories, with penguin level romance. They had loss and misery and when Mrs. Bougainvillea, one of the stars, didn’t come home that first time — -to her mate of over a decade — I almost cried outright.

I won’t tell you what happens next to Mrs. B. In a way I can’t bring myself to do it because I want you to watch this fluffy little series with fresh eyes. But I also don’t want to tell you because, what happened to Mrs. B or what happened to Junior, a singleton brought in for rehab, was tame compared to what happened this week.

What happens next to Penguin Town was my immediate question. What happens to the actual conservation efforts? What happens to the tourism that depends on these creatures? More importantly, what happens if the show’s producers don’t include this into another season? How exactly can they handle the reality of 63 dead penguins, with their eyes stung shut?

The show’s producers might realize there is no way to make this sweet conservation story a success for another season or they might just gloss over this bit. But who knows what else will happen next? Next time it might be something else just as gruesome — poisoned waters or maybe a natural predator made extra fierce due to the dwindling numbers of available prey. The stories of Penguin Town might have to face this head on or sin in the documentary filmmakers way by simply omitting that which is inconvenient.

Climate change accelerates and we simply plod along so it should be no surprise that for most of us, this news of the Penguin Town apocalypse will simply come and go. We don’t mourn wild creatures. We don’t mourn the fish after the oil spills, except in numbers related to lost fishing revenues. We never memorialize the charred bodies of the animals caught in wildfires until it cuts into some kind of tourism dollar. We just don’t do it for them, because it isn’t our custom, and their lives have no real meaning to us. We file them under “Nature” and let that story lead.

Imagine, 63 penguins less for your endangered colony feel good doc? Imagine the moment when you or I have to say to the little ones, “No, we can not watch Penguin Town anymore, but we can watch that other cartoon.” If Penguin Town the show does manage to persist it could be forced out of general audience rating to an “X” for pornographic sadness, for peak apocalypse realness. The future of this all seems complicated, more complicated than I thought it could get.

Sixty three dead birds should be considered God’s casualties, not ours, but instead they are ours because we have put the world out of balance. So, you might have almost missed this news, just like I did. You might have even heard it and then filed it under “Sad but not related to my daily life,” like I have. Truth is, our lives are still on-going, but so is this apocalypse of global stability and somewhere in there, the death of these penguins is going to matter. It’s just a matter of time before we all realize there is no escape. There is no one who is not our neighbor.

Remember Penguin Town.