The Penguin

The Penguin
"Trust me, I'm one of you..."

A couple of unusual circumstances came together in my last year of veterinary school. It wasn't planned. There would have been no way to do so. In fact, had I tried to organize the phenomenon, I doubt it would have happened. Sort of like the way I met my wife with a lucky guess while on a brief stint at a veterinary externship in Oregon. Half of making your own luck is realizing it when it happens.

It didn't lead to anything as impactful as meeting a future spouse, however, that did play a role. Actually, it was the new relationship that led to the first half of the coincidence. After a month, we had thrown in for a long-distance phase, and because I was spending so much time at the hospital, she offered to fly down to California to spend the weekend together. Which happened to be Halloween.

This is a smart move if you're the new girlfriend of a hetero male veterinary student. For some reason (repression? depression? expression?), Halloween is a surprisingly sybaritic celebration for graduate students. Physical proximity to a partner can't help but limit their attention elsewhere. Maybe it was this sense of commitment that led to the idea for our costumes: penguins.

Beloved on social media for their adorability and supposed monogamy, penguins seemed like a cute option for us, the recently enamored. I also thought it would be fun to shuttle an "egg" on top of our feet back and forth on the way to the keg. Maybe she mentioned she liked penguins? Or maybe we subconsciously anthropomorphized our new relationship energy into the admirable aspects of penguin behavior? Courtship, nuzzling, reunion rituals after long separations? Monogamy, shared parental responsibilities?

Who the hell knows? In any case, penguins don't always share parenting responsibilities equally and have a tendency to divorce! But we knew nothing about that, and happily spray painted a couple of white Tyvek suits, duct taped some cardboard together, and had a serviceable pair of penguin costumes in no time. Finished just in time for a friend's low key Halloween party.

I can't say with any confidence that the inside of a garage is as harsh as the Antarctic winter, but the costumes worked as intended. I liked them so much, in fact, that I kept them shoved behind the seat of my pickup truck for the next three months. Which is when the second unusual incident occurred.

The suits, my relationship, and my academic good standing had all been somehow maintained by the time I showed up on the avian and exotic pet clinical rotation. Well known as the place that draws the nuttiest of nutties,¹ I was blissfully un-jaded back then, and thoroughly enjoyed the daily schedule of macaws, canaries, cockatoos, iguanas, turtles, snakes and all varieties of small skittish mammals (kept away from the snakes).

One morning, with uncharacteristic cheer, a technician told us that an African penguin from the Monterey Bay Aquarium was our patient that day. The department was collaborating with the aquarium's veterinary team to facilitate special diagnostics at the university. Those days are special. I mean, the social media attention you get from selfies with anesthetized wildlife alone is worth it, but it's also just actually really cool to be that close to exotic animals. We were all there because we're animal nerds, after all.

The penguin (can't remember your name, sorry) waddled in perfectly adorably, accompanied by an animal trainer. We introduced ourselves and then got down to business. Penguin training has made remarkable gains in the last fifty years, but not even Mr. Popper's gonna sit perfectly still for a 25 minute MRI. The lucky team of vet students assisted with the anesthesia, flaunting our adorable patient in front of less exciting departments (See what we've got, Dentistry!?). We smugly described the intricacies of penguin anesthesia to our jealous colleagues. It was fascinating² and fun, and we made a grand old time of it.

But waiting for advanced diagnostics and recording pulse rates every five minute only stays exciting for so long, even with outlandish cute patients. At the end of the day, you just want them to wake up safely once the anesthesia gas is turned off, so that they (and you) can go home. It's all fun and games until six o' clock.

Diving animals though, they sure can hold their breath! We waited. Anesthetic recovery really should be the time to slow down and allow a smooth, patient-centered recovery, especially so for a wild animal. But waiting is hard, and this damn thing would not wake up.

We all stared at the little guy and thought the same thing, Wake the hell up! I want to watch some favorite thing on TV! Usually, wild animals wake up from anesthesia and want to tear somebody's throat out. But this was a lazy penguin. He could have played The Dude if the Coen brothers remade Happy Feet

"You to wake up!!!!"

Absolutely no attempt at movement whatsoever. Lazy bastard. He'd blink slowly about every 14 minutes, but couldn't hold his head up. This was excruciating, but it's not fair to get angry at your patients for a prolonged recovery, especially with your attending clinician there watching. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. Then, a thought came.

"Would it help if the penguin saw someone familiar?"

Even the attending was bored stiff, so he humored me. I had already talked myself into the sales pitch: I'll welcome this timid soul from the South Pole⁴ back into the land of the lucid with a recognizable face. After all, if I was a groggy, six-pound, flightless bird and I found myself surrounded by humans and linoleum floors, I might choose to shut my eyes and hope it would all go away.

Less than five minutes later I was back from my truck, suiting up. How my attending had convinced himself that the patient seeing a 6'3" man in moldy Tyvek would be helpful, I don't know. What I do know is that it's not possible that during this time the bird was recovering on its own. I know– I watched that bastard sleep solid for almost two hours. It showed no signs of activity until I was fully gowned and had activated "Penguin Mode".

But a gentle nuzzle of the beak, some improvised Spheniscidae exhortations (hope I got the accent right), and I kid you not– the sleepyhead came to life. It didn't matter that I was twenty times his size, or that I was dressed as a completely different species of penguin. It didn't matter that I reeked of cheap spray paint and cheaper beer that had been fermenting in a car for three months. That penguin looked at me, believed, and stood up. And that was all that mattered. To the humans. They swiftly kicked him and the aquarium staff out of the building and locked up before I could even get out of my suit.

I like to think that the penguin remembers me. I was so proud I drove home in my penguin suit. I like to think that we all want someone we can be comfortable with, doubly so when we're vulnerable, or really sleepy, or an amphibious species coming to under artificial lighting. I like to be around people who like animals, and science, and dressing in dumb costumes and doing dumb things. I was lucky to be in a place where those around me barely questioned my ridiculous idea, and luckier still that some kind colleague got the perfect photo for Facebook.

¹ Remind me to tell you the "Guinea Pig" story sometime.

² Penguins have two tracheas. When you look down their throat, there are two wind pipes. It's bizarre. You need to use a specially made breathing tube to make sure both sides of the lungs get the full amount of oxygen. It might be more appropriate to call it a "bifurcated trachea".

³ Which was actually made by the guy who created the Mad Max franchise. And Babe. WTF?!

South Africa, actually.

Greg Bishop

Greg Bishop

A veterinarian with unquenchable creative impulses. Unquenchable? Hmmm... creative "tendencies"? Well, it depends on how well I slept last night. Also a writer, illustrator and whatever-elser.