It is funny how something as frustrating as taking a wrong turn can demonstrate so clearly the good and bad in people. If you haven’t heard, on Monday afternoon an Emperor Penguin from Antarctica managed to take a 7,000 kilometre detour and arrived on Peka Peka Beach in New Zealand. It is one of only two birds known to survive such a trek through, arguably, some of the worlds most treacherous waters.
The thing that strikes me most about this wayward juvenile is not his endurance nor the lonely figure he cuts against the shoreline, but instead the way that his presence alone can say so much about humankind. Nicknamed Happy Feet, after the Oscar winning movie about a dancing penguin, the community has gone above and beyond to protect him. For instance, last Wednesday night a bunch of drunken youths were reported to be ‘making a bloody nuisance of themselves’ near Happy Feet. A group of residents voluntarily set up an all-night guard, in the freezing New Zealand winter, to prevent harm from coming to him.
The next day Kapiti Coast District Council assigned a security guard to prevent spectators getting too close with their cars and flashing cameras. The council has also blocked vehicle access to the beach for the coming weekend, predicting an onslaught of bird-watching fanatics and general sightseers. They have also scheduled staff to make regular trips to check on the monochromatic visitor.
Since Happy Feets condition has deteriorated, becoming extremely lethargic and displaying signs of overheating, various organisations have united to formulate long-term plans for the young man. There is no way of getting him back to his home during winter (too dangerous), they do not have the facilities to home him in New Zealand and while they could send him to an Australian zoo it is unlikely that he will be able to integrate with the other species. It is an undertaking fraught with complications yet they continue to exhaust all options to give Happy Feet the best chance of survival.
Hearing the plight of Happy Feet I can’t help but think of the many refugees, be they environmentally or politically driven, that are also arriving by sea. By no fault of their own they are stuck in a situation that seems to have no happy ending. Imagine if we treated them with an ounce of the compassion that these residents have treated Happy Feet? If we recognised how dangerous and exhausting their journey was– especially if they were young like our penguin hero. If we at least considered finding them a place to belong even though it may be a long and complicated process. If we decided not to just wipe our hands of them by sending them to another location, knowing full well the uncertain future that awaited them there. If we protected something for the sole reason that we can recognise it needs protecting, without question of whether it is worthy of the “charity” you bestow upon it.
If Australians were birds we would undoubtedly be Emus. We were born, through no design of our own, taller than other birds. Even though we are exactly the same; with two legs, two feet and two useless wings that don’t fly, we consider the fact that we tower over some others as a measure of worth, power and entitlement. Like the emu we are renowned for being silly. And similar to the emu when we are met with something confronting we can think of no better solution than to run away.
Who would have thought a little bird, with happy feet and no voice, could say so much about people?