Penguins. Penguins. The bane of my existence. I hate penguins. Not all, just the African penguin, Spheniscus demersus. My dear, darling research subjects. Tuxedoed, as all penguins are, about a foot tall, in the shape of bowling pins or footballs, reminding me exactly how easy it would be to knock them over or punt them across the exhibit when they cause me grievances. But if I did that, I'd probably be kicked out of research for the rest of my life, and I don't want that. Or do I? It would make things so much simpler, and I wouldn't be out in ninety-degree weather, getting baked by the sun, carrying a camera attached to a tripod, searching for a seemingly nonexistent penguin as I walk the perimeter of the fence muttering, "I hate penguins" under my breath and turning "penguins" into a brand-new curse word, putting all the old ones to shame.
I wouldn't have had to deal with being placed on the back burner by my research professor as a freshman since our lab was too large for him to give everyone the attention they needed, causing disappointment after disappointment for myself and my fellow freshman researchers. I wouldn't have had to complain so much just to finally be able to start my research, but it's a good thing I did, since my fellow freshman researchers are now sophomores at the end of their spring semester who still haven't started their freshman research. I wouldn't have gone up to the zoo on my first day and quit after one hour, unable to identify any of the penguins based on the different colored bands on their flippers, which were too far away for me to see without binoculars, and incapable of filming each one for ten minutes, as I had originally intended. I wouldn't have had to scour through a thirty-page packet on African penguin behavior to make an ethogram, a numbered list of all the African penguin behaviors known to humankind, and learn what each behavior looks like with no help whatsoever from my research professor or the girl who researched the penguins before me. I wouldn't have the names, band wings and colors, numbers that I assigned each penguin to randomize the sample, physical characteristics, personalities, favorite hangout spots, mates, and even some of the birthdays of each penguin unintentionally memorized from looking at all my data on them so often. I wouldn't hate penguins.
And currently, I wouldn't be sitting on uncomfortable boulders, trying not to brush off the ants that are tickling my arms and legs as I film, letting bumble bees and wasps alike crawl all over me as I search with a pair of binoculars for my next movie star while Curtis brays like a donkey on a Rock near me (and yes, Rock is capital, since it's his throne, his kingdom, much like Camelot or Babylon was in ancient times). Houdini and Lionel, who used to sit at my feet as I filmed, have moved their nest far away, behind a plant, hiding from me. Cosmo is hard to see, as always; Hadithi is in the nest with Cosmo, but she's invisible to me, so I have to climb into poison ivy just to focus my lens on her, AND WHAT DOES SHE DO? She comes out after hours of being holed up there. And just when I climb out of the poison to film her, she goes back in again, and I clamber over a fence, back along a narrow path by a cliff-like hill that leads down to a green lake, back into brambles of poison ivy, to see the spot behind the tall grass where she's hunkered down in the nest with Cosmo. And of course, Curtis is still braying deafeningly in the distinctive call of an African, also known as Jackass, penguin. Hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw. Shut up, shut up, please, Curtis, please SHUT UP. I'm one more hee-haw away from ruptured eardrums and a nervous breakdown. And the other penguins aren't exactly helping.
Don, who's blind in one eye, totters around the edge of the pool and topples in; Frog trips over her own feet; Lyden does a faceplant; Clytee is an old fart that does nothing; Thulani tries to peck my foot; Chai is still in molt after three months; Kesi just dove in the water; Baridi is pecking Bajadi, who's trying to escape; Greer is who knows where; Kunye is allopreening Curtis as one half of the zoo's resident gay penguin couple; and Blake is chasing butterflies. Wonderful. This probably won't affect my study at all (yes, I'm rolling my eyes).
My life with penguins is utter chaos, and as I ruminate on this, I listen to children and adults alike croon, "Ohhhh, they're so cute!" And here I am, pounding the scorching hot blacktop, tripod in tow, searching for penguin number seven with a pink and white beaded band on her left flipper – Hadithi, in case you were wondering – thinking darkly, "Oh, they're cute all right. . ." and imagining the extinction of this species, which might come in fifteen years, since they're endangered. And I see why now, it's because everyone who's ever researched these penguins has readily drop-kicked them off their native islands of South Africa into the waiting jaws of Great White Sharks out of pure frustration, as they're not very cooperative research subjects. They move out of sight quite often, waddle awkwardly on land, and do weird shit, like chase butterflies, peck flying insects, bite blades of grass, take bird-baths, and aggravate one another, sometimes to the point of attacking. Did you know that there are six behaviors in African penguins concerning aggressive behavior? I never meant to, either.
And of course, while I think about all this, Curtis is still braying.
That's just data collection. Don't even get me started on scoring the videos I collect. It's basically converting all of the data in the films into numbers that can be analyzed later on through statistical tests and computer programs – the fun stuff. There are seventeen penguins and an Excel spreadsheet with columns filled with numbers and times ranging through Column A to Column AA for each one. I must list their exact behaviors in order from the first to the last second of each five-minute video and record the exact duration of each behavior, even if it lasts a second or less, as the behavior of head-shaking often does. I filmed each penguin for thirteen weeks over the course of the summer, and I had 216 videos to score. Time passed, and somehow, I managed to get through one hundred of them over Winter Break. I started having dreams about penguins – no, not even real penguins, penguins on my computer screen – by the ninety-ninth video. But I'm happy now (I pretend) because I only have three weeks' worth of videos left! Only fifty-one more to go! Hopefully there won't be any more long ones, like the one where Houdini, who once was my favorite individual in my least favorite species, erratically performed one-hundred and six behaviors over the course of five minutes, at which point I wanted to never see or score another penguin ever again.
(But even though I hate penguins, I woke up in the middle of the night over Winter Break, suddenly terrified that one of the more elderly, twenty-year-old penguins, Cosmo or Clytee, died while I was away from them. Fear pulsed through me, doubt that they were still alive filled my mind, and my stomach was about to plummet out of my body, except it was fortunately still connected to my esophagus, which held it in place, though it made it hard to swallow. My heart beat like the rhythmic sound of a shovel heaving dirt out of a small, foot-long, plump-penguin-shaped grave, and I hurried downstairs in the dark to the desktop computer, waking my bunny up in the process. After a quick Google search, I found the zoo's website and combed through the recent news, going back as far as September, when I'd stopped filming. I found an eighteen-year-old lynx that had died, but the most recent news post I found described the union of Clytee and Don, two older penguins who had finally found love in one another. Adrenaline faded out of my system and was slowly replaced by doubtful, dubious relief. They're still alive! I don't know how, but they are! And I'm not quite unhappy about it, but you'll never hear me admit it, since I hate penguins.)
And of course, to add to the penguin pandemonium, I'm now a research director for the Bio 124 lab, which wants to expose students to research (I no longer know why anyone would want to expose themselves to research) in the hopes that the students will enjoy research (they won't) and pursue it as a potential career option (DON'T DO IT!). So my job is to instruct students in the study of penguin behavior (which is weird), try to describe research as fun (it's not), try not to eliminate one girl's love of penguins, which are her favorite animal (why?!), and coordinate a trip to the zoo to see and film these dearly beloved penguins (can you feel the sarcasm emanating from me, hear the extra amount of it in my already sarcastic voice?).
I remember gathering the students around me, five of them – Caitlyn, Dymond, Casey, Riley, and Sarah – and explaining my expectations for each of them, mentioning that as long as they meet all of my expectations, they'll get the full participation points from me. I decided to put off discussing our research animal for as long as possible, trying to give them a few spare seconds in which they could cling to the stereotypic view of penguins as cuddly, adorable animals that would never cause anyone frustration, let alone anger, rather than the annoying, aggravating, aggressive little craps that they genuinely are.
Finally, I can't delay it anymore; I have to tell the students. I take a deep breath, preparing to shatter their love of penguins, and say in a slow, grave, exhausted voice (exhausted just at the thought), "Our research animal is. . . penguins."
The explosion is immediate. The girls erupt into smiles and giggles, exclaiming, "Yay!" "Penguins!" "Oh my god, you're kidding! They're my favorite animal! This is going to be the best research project ever!" Their grins light up their faces.
I smile thinly, feeling a headache starting to come on, and a piece of my soul erodes as I take in their misguided excitement. I feel bad for the students, figuring that they'll probably turn out like me, with a deep dread and loathing associated with penguins. They'll hate research, but at least they'll figure that out now, before they become committed to it, as I am. I'm sparing them from a terrible fate; they'll just have to suffer temporarily. So, I smile thinly, knowing that this will be a process of pain and sheer weariness, despise and barely controlled disasters. That's how research goes.
After I coordinate the zoo trip and we finally get to there on March 13th this year, the zookeepers leave the penguins out of their indoor area into the exhibit, and myself and the students clamber over the fence. I observe the differently spotted bellies, black, webbed feet, bent and ruffled feathers of molt, and flippers extended slightly at their sides, as if they're about to beat their wings and fly with the ease and grace of a sparrow. I look down into the little penguin faces, the differently sized beaks and dark, knowing eyes, smile with true happiness, and say, "I've missed you guys so much."
And in no time, Curtis starts braying.