Saheli Sadanand recently defended her Ph.D. in the Department of Immunobiology at Yale University. She has written extensively for both scientific and non-scientific audiences on everything from the necessity of vaccines to the value of science education. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, travelling, reading history books (both factual and fictional), eating chocolate chip cookies and trying to convince everyone around her that dinosaurs were the greatest animals of all time. She recommends following the escapee penguin’s lead and checking out Buenos Aires if you get a chance.
A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he say and why is he here?
I sat alone, with a cup of half-drunk tea, a chocolate chip cookie and a notepad next to me. I stared at the top of the notepad. I had written “The Future” in big capital letters and underlined the words a few times, hoping that this would help me figure out what I should do as I stared at the list of options below. The notepad was chockfull of information but instead of feeling decisive as I stared at “THE FUTURE,” I was just tired. The present wasn’t great, but the future seemed increasingly scary. What if everything went wrong again?
The stool next to me at the café bar moved abruptly, knocking me out of my stupor. I turned – and saw nobody. Then I heard an almost imperceptible sigh. “Could you give me a hand?” asked a squeaky voice from somewhere near my shoes. I looked down and gasped. There stood a penguin wearing a sombrero. It nudged me with its wing. “Please? I’ve been waddling all day.” I reached out a hand and gave the penguin a wing up onto the stool seat. “Thanks.”
I assumed the rule of not staring applied here, so I directed my attention back to my notepad. “It’s tough, right? To figure out the next step?” said the penguin, glancing at my notepad. Great, not only was I sitting next to an anthropomorphic penguin, I was also sitting next to a nosy one. I glared at the bird and it coolly took a bite from my chocolate chip cookie while it innocently looked back at me. “I’m on the run, so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t draw too much attention here. Wouldn’t want to hurt you,” the penguin blithely threatened. “No worries,” I croaked. Having seen “The Birds” as a child, I took the warning seriously. “What are you running from?” I whispered. The penguin looked at me carefully. “From the zoo, actually. Needed a snack break before I made my way to the airport.”
“Are you from…South America?” I asked, taking a wild stab at a possible penguin locale where penguins may wear sombreros. “Yup, Patagonia to be more specific – although I was mostly raised in the zoo, hence my fluency in English,” said the penguin, taking another piece of my cookie. “I saw the sombrero in the zoo locker room. It’s a little flamboyant, I know, but I couldn’t resist.” It nibbled the cookie fragment for a few seconds.
“Why’d you leave the zoo?” I asked. I had a lot of questions, but thought it would be too blunt to ask this penguin whether it was a member of an endangered species or how it felt about climate change. The penguin seemed to be thinking about how best to respond. “It was hard, I won’t lie. Some of the other penguins thought I was crazy. I’ve known for awhile that I couldn’t stay at the zoo much longer – wasn’t a fan of the zoo keeper. I needed to move on, meet normal penguins and just…be happy. Feel respected and valued and not just tossed snacks whenever it suits some mercurial individual. I’m sure it will be a steep learning curve, being a wild penguin. New environment, no scheduled feedings, penguins with different life experiences from my own. I’ll have to take initiative, make new friends. But you gotta stay hopeful and take a shot, right?”
The penguin abruptly brushed its wings clean of cookie crumbs and dipped its beak into my tea. “That hit the spot – thanks for sharing! Probably should get moving; next flight to Buenos Aires is in a few hours.” And with that, it jumped off the stool and waddled past the propped open door of the café. I turned back to my notepad. I drew a circle around some words and took a bite of my partially eaten cookie. I wasn’t sure what had just happened, but I knew what to do next.