And the flightless birds will once again enjoy some good publicity with the Wednesday release of Penguins of Madagascar, a 3D animated kids’ movie that’s a spin-off of the popular Madagascar series. The new film features a squad of funny, badass penguins named Skipper, Kowalski, Rico, and Private, who try to stop an octopus voiced by John Malkovich from taking over the world. The crime-fighting penguins, says the trailer, are “masters of the skies, espionage, and aerial assault.”
Here’s an adorable clip of the four of them being young and adorable:
As cute as that was, there is also a scene in the PG-rated family movie where one of the penguin protagonists tortures a crying baby squid for information. And if you know much about penguins, that behavior won’t come as much of a surprise. Because just as ostensibly lovable dolphins are far more brutal than their whitewashed reputations would suggest, those cartoon penguins have their own dark secrets.
The talking, espionage-prone penguins of the Madagascar franchise are computer-animated versions of Adélie penguins, which are found on the Antarctic coast. This species of penguin was showered with positive coverage throughout the 20th century by a supposedly vigilant press. “Sociable” and “puckish” is how a Toledo Blade headline described them in 1957. “Adelie penguins are the most lovable, rollicking, comical kind,” the story read. “They are very friendly and curious,” The Evening Independent wrote in 1979 in an item emphasizing their popularity and cuteness.
But in 1912, British naturalist George Murray Levick, along with five other members of Capt. Robert Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, found himself stranded on Antarctica’s coast. While trapped there, Levick closely studied the habits and excesses of the Adélie penguin population during their breeding season, and was floored by the “astonishing depravity” of what he witnessed.
Roughly a century after he jotted down his scandal-soaked observations, his notes were finally made public. His work detailed the “aberrant behaviour of young unpaired males and females including necrophilia, sexual coercion, [and] sexual and physical abuse of chicks,” according to the abstract published by Polar Record, a Cambridge University Press journal.
“There seems to be no crime too low for these penguins,” Levick wrote.
His work also provides a graphic account of injured females who were assaulted by marauding “gangs” of Adélie males. Other female penguins would have their babies “misused before the very eyes of its parents.” Some of the chicks were even crushed and murdered.
But disturbed as he was by abuse, perversity, and rape perpetrated by the “little knots of hooligans”, Levick conveniently left out the unflattering details when he later published a book on Adélie penguins.
Researchers in subsequent decades have indeed documented the violence, sexual and otherwise, that these birds are capable of. But in the eyes of an adoring public, the reputation of an Adélie penguin is one of waddling and innocence, not necrophilia and infanticide.
Now let’s watch them be cute some more: