Susan Morrison: A wing, a prayer and an overcoat

The technique for catching a penguin is easy as long as you have a friend and a coat.  Montage: by Dave Hamburgh
The technique for catching a penguin is easy as long as you have a friend and a coat. Montage: by Dave Hamburgh
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AT Zoo Lates last week– if you didn’t get the chance to go along, it’s another great Edinburgh attraction that’s opening late now and again to let the grown-ups in to play without the kids around – I got the chance to commune briefly with what the Native Americans would call my spirit animal, the penguin.

Now, the son of an old whaling hand told me the reason that our zoo had such a big penguin colony was as a direct result of the Leith whaling fleet in the Antarctic. He said the zoo paid for every live one. I believe him. But then, I believed in the Tooth Fairy until I was 37.

He claimed he knew how the penguins were safely snaffled, and it’s entirely possible that this is a technique that you may need one day, perhaps in the event of a mass penguin escape, driven as they may be by the desire to find a zoo that has remained panda-free.

This might just happen, given the chippy nature of the Gentoo penguin. They’re a snack sized little bunch, if you are an Orca looking for a quick bite, but they’ve got an Eric Joyce-like attitude to authority figures. Take your King penguins. They may stand around looking, well, regal, but that doesn’t stop the Gentoos ganging up and surrounding their taller cousin then chucking him over. Must look like a Bullingdon day out.

So, should you one day glance up from the Number 22 bus and see Gentoos leading an all-out assault on the north face of Castle Rock, here’s how you catch your penguin. You will need a friend, or at the very least, someone you can work with. Not Boris Johnson. Not even people on the same side seem to be able to work with him. Anyway, you’ll need a pal, and a coat. Quite a big one.

Now, get your pal to run round to the front of the penguin, and distract them. Waving arms is usually quite a good tactic, and whilst the penguin is being distracted by your friend doing semaphore, shadow animals or a particularly frenetic rendition of Mhairi’s Wedding on the bagpipes (see left), you have to sneak up behind it, aim your big coat carefully, and bingo, drop with care and lift with élan. Voila! You have your 

Do be very careful if you are using this technique on Leith Links. Penguins rarely wander about the Links, to be honest, so do check you aren’t about to overcoat a particularly keen fan of The Sound Of Music, or worse, an actual nun.

Penguin wasn’t there by choice

Scotland, being Scotland, and therefore given to pioneering new methods in penguin training, had another sure fire way to get a Gentoo or catch a King.

In 1914, the William Spiers Bruce Antarctic Expedition piper hit on the novel idea of playing the bagpipes to what looks like a faintly bemused Emperor penguin. There’s a famous photo of Gilbert Kerr and penguin looking like a Caledonian equivalent of snake charming using chanters and kilts.

Three things to ponder here. Just how many other nations do you know make sure their explorers set sail with all the valuable food, medicine and scientific instruments they may need, oh, and a bagpiper? Secondly, just how tough was Gilbert Kerr to dress in full Highland rig in temperatures well below zero? The kilt is a dangerous garment for sub-zero temperatures. One miss-step in an eightsome reel and Gilbert could have left more than his sporran on the ice; and thirdly, just how wild was that penguin? A closer look at the original of the famous photo shows that said baffled emperor is actually tied to a hefty looking pot. Not so much wild, as they say, as absolutely raging. David Attenborough would not have approved, methinks.

Pandas are multiplying

Our pandas don’t appear too happy to increase their numbers, but their soft toy counterparts are well on their way to overwhelming the city.

The zoo gift shop is a mass of takeaway fluffy pandas, and all coincidentally Made In China. I’ve never seen so many glassy eyes and blank expressions. Well, no wait, I’ve watched debates in the parliament.

From waxing lyrical to upper lip

Oh they said, at the zoo, you’re doing the comedy for us. OK, no problem, you’re up in the Budongo lecture theatre.

Yes, they had put the comedian in the chimpanzee house. It was all going quite well, I thought, until I was heckled by a chimpanzee, who kept appearing at the lecture theatre window to have a look. But then I thought it was a boy chimp and he appeared to quite fancy me. Turned out it was a lady chimp and she just wanted to make sure I naffed off away from her boyfriend. Memo to self. Get upper lip waxed, pronto.