"March of the Penguins" Too Lovey-Dovey to Be True?

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
August 19, 2005
Ever since Walt Disney immortalized interspecies friendships and
talking teapots, anthropomorphism (attributing human traits and
emotions to animals or objects) has been a movie staple.

Now some scientists are criticizing the movie March of the Penguins for portraying the Antarctic seabirds almost as tiny, two-tone humans.

The poster for the surprise hit film reads, "In the harshest place on Earth love finds a way." And the movie describes the annual journey of emperor penguins to their breeding grounds as a "quest to find the perfect mate and start a family" against impossible odds.

The penguins are the only animals that make a home above the ice in the subzero temperatures and blistering winds of the Antarctic winter. They overcome incredible odds just to survive, never mind breed and nurture new life.

But is it love?

Talking Animals

The filmmakers behind the English-language version of March of the Penguins—which is distributed by Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Feature Films—toned down the anthropomorphism of the original, French release.

In the original documentary the penguins "spoke" their own dialogue, like Bambi or Babe the pig. The version released in the United States uses a narrator, actor Morgan Freeman, to tell the story.

Still, the film describes the emperor penguins as "not that different from us" in their pouting, bellowing, and strutting.

The bond between the star penguin parents is called a "love story." And the penguins seem to have emotions—grieving over the loss of an egg or a chick, rejoicing at the return of a mate, loving their families.

"In a few places it's a little over the top," said Alison Power, director of communications for New York City's Bronx Zoo and the affiliated Wildlife Conservation Society. "But I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job in not anthropomorphizing the animals."

Marine biologist Gerald Kooyman studies penguins at Antarctica's "Penguin Ranch," and he begs to differ. He said the portrayal of the penguins' mating rituals as a love story is a "major" case of anthropomorphism.

So do the birds experience emotions at all? "Zoologists would say, Probably not," said Kooyman, who works for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "A lot of what looks to us like love or grief is probably hormonally driven more than some kind of attachment" to the egg, chick, or partner, he said.

For instance, there are several scenes in the film when a parent seems to grieve over a broken egg doomed never to hatch, or appears to mourn over the body of its frozen chick.

"The adult would not recognize the chick after it's frozen," Kooyman said. "The main recognition between the adults and chick is the call. If a chick can't call back, the adult won't pay any attention to it."

Instinct, hormones, and the drive to reproduce influence a lot of the penguin behavior, Kooyman said.

"What gives the impression sometimes of sorrow is that they fool around with the [broken or frozen] egg, or other birds try to take an egg away," Kooyman said. "There's just a drive to incubate, to participate in breeding behavior at that time of year for these birds."

The film also shows multiple shots of two adult penguins cuddling side by side, their beaks touching and forming almost a heart shape. It looks like love, but is it?

Despite the beautiful imagery, it's not certain that each posturing pair is actually a mated pair.

"If it's in August or September, the two are probably mates," Kooyman said. "In April it could easily be two birds that get together and then decide that they wouldn't make good partners.

"You also see such posturing at the ice's edge. There's a lot of social behavior between adults," he added.

Temporary Families

Unlike nesting birds, penguin parents actually spend very little time together.

The penguins make the grueling journey across some 70 miles (110 kilometers) of Antarctic ice each April to return to the breeding grounds where they were born. After the courtship period, the couple forms a strong bond until the egg is laid in May or early June.

However, as soon as the egg is transferred to the father, the mother takes off to return to her feeding grounds. She returns some two months later. The starving male, who hasn't had a meal in months, immediately leaves.

The two trade off rearing their fish and returning to the sea to feed for about five months, until the chick is old enough to be left on its own. After that point the parents will probably never see each other—or their offspring—again.

"In a way, the film anthropomorphized the lives of the penguins, but I think it's OK," Kooyman said. "Simplifying some aspects of the penguins' life story makes it more accessible to the general public."

Also see our interview with March of the Penguins director Luc Jacquet.

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