Penguins are being outfitted with sweaters at Phillip Island Nature Park in Australia, but it is not part of a fashion statement. The penguins that receive a knitted sweater are those affected by oil spills. Once their feathers have been covered in oil, their waterproof and heating qualities no longer work, and the penguins, left without the protection their feathers usually provides them, are then subject to the cold. That’s where the sweaters come in.
The sweaters are knit by volunteers and donated to the little penguins, or fairy penguins as they are commonly called. They will keep the pint-sized birds warm between the time they are exposed to oil and the time they get a bath from staff members. The sweaters will keep them from trying to remove the oil with their beaks, which would lead them to ingest the oil and cause further harm to themselves. The Penguin Foundation is behind the Knits for Nature program and cares for the island’s penguin population. The sweater designs are creations of volunteers that work with them. Lyn Blom of Philip Island told Daily Mail, “People love to know that they’re helping the penguins because they’re so cute and small and they waddle up the beach and they’re so feisty.”
The foundation doesn’t just care for the island’s existing penguin population, it also rescues other penguins. The foundation’s website estimates that there are approximately 32,000 little penguins on the island, with a total population of one million. Annually, they rescue about 20 penguins. While oil spills aren’t common, the foundation has taken great measures to prepare for them in the event that they do happen. In 2001, the foundation was able to save 96% of the 453 little penguins affected on the island. They were rehabilitated at the Wildlife Clinic before being released into the wild.
The organization keeps a stockpile of sweaters donated by volunteers so that they have plenty on-hand. They have no shortage of volunteers, Blom told the Daily Mail that there are many women out there that need someone to knit for, that, “These ladies have spare wool and idle hands, and they love to feel loved and needed and we love and need them.” No sweater ever goes to waste, any that are sent in and do not fit or are the wrong shape are then sold on penguin plush toys, with all proceeds going toward research and other penguin necessities. The sweaters also serve to educate students that visit the nature park about the effects of marine and coastal pollution.
The foundation is also currently funding the research of new technology that would remove oil from the little penguins’ feathers faster and more efficiently. The technology would involve spreading iron powder on the affected area and using a magnetic wand to collect all of the iron powder and oil. Meanwhile, the park’s staff is gearing up for the Exercise Pinguino in May, where they will run an oil spill drill to prepare the island for actual spills.