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In the bright waters of the aquarium, penguins and their keepers propose a fishy utopia.

Pushing through the glass doors of the aquarium, it’s always the smell that hits first: a littoral fragrance of sodden concrete upholstered with algae; riding atop these marine notes, the unmistakable ammoniac whiff of guano. It’s a fragrant framing, and my other senses go on alert, as if readying for a plummet of terns, a deluge of waves, a rush of schooling fish. And then, out of the shadowy vaulted concrete, it comes into view: the pool-blue waters of the penguin exhibit, dappled and fluorescent. I’m arriving for a day as a volunteer on the penguin team; and while I’m still dry in my uniform of chinos and polo shirt, it’s surely the presence of that vast volume of water—some 500,000 gallons of it, with an average temperature of 46° Fahrenheit—which raises the hairs on the back of my neck.

En route to the crew office, I skirt the pool, known as “the tray” in aquarium parlance. Its surface lies below ground level, extending throughout the whole of the lowermost precinct of the exhibit space. Divided into sections for the three species of birds that inhabit it, its waters are punctuated with fiberglass islands the size of delivery trucks—fabricated marine landscapes with steep faces, shallowing, pool-bedecked shorelines, and nooks for sheltering birds. At this hour, spray nozzles blossom from the islands’ pebbly surfaces, like forlorn anemones marooned at high tide. And stately throughout this landscape stand the penguins—sleek and wet, their dripping beaks held high, occasionally issuing guttural cries in descending notes. It’s an hour before the doors open to the public, and the tray and its waters belong solely to the birds.

Two origami penguins sit on a rock, against a watercolor-painted sky.

Sean Myers

Products of modernity and colonialism, zoos and aquaria have become targets of critique, even scorn. The 2013 documentary Blackfish explored, in stark and compelling terms, the contested ethics of these institutions, their objectification of organisms, and the fraught conditions of their display. And yet in the penguin exhibit, a different kind of exchange is also visible, messy and material, rich in sense and affect: a roiling tide of guano and dead fish, of veterinary disinfectants and molted feathers, of sharp beaks and frigid, bleeding fingers. What would it mean to rethink the zoo as a place where the possibilities of interspecies being are tested and realized? I went to the aquarium to pose this question at first hand—to get my feet wet, as it were, in the muck of multispecies ethics.

At this hour, there are no visitors to intrude on the penguin office, and the door is propped open, revealing a row of wetsuits crowding the narrow workspace, buckets piled with brushes, a whiteboard scrawled with checklists and feeding notes. In the middle alcove, called the kitchen, a crew of keepers in khakis and blue polos is clustered around a cart laden with plastic trays of fish. Before penguin volunteers can memorize the names of birds, they must learn the species and anatomies of these feed fish: fingerling capelin, anchovies, and smelt, which arrive frozen in blocks. Today is Monday, capelin day, and we sort and weigh them out in predetermined amounts for the three species of penguins. The fish are still frozen, intimately intertwined as if hewn from flash-frozen schools. Sorted and rinsed, piled into buckets, about 60 pounds of fish are prepared daily—roughly one pound for each bird, although the amounts consumed vary widely across the species of penguin, from the lumbering Africans, to the middleweight Rockhoppers, to the guinea-pig-sized Little Blues.

Rockhoppers stand atop their island, basting themselves in a gush of chilled air, greeting the keepers with studied indifference.

As the buckets reach their appointed weights, an urgency rises among the crew; the opening hour is near, and we need to get into the exhibit. Teams break off to shower and don wetsuits, running warm water over creased neoprene to ease the shock of cold. There is a practiced protocol to this, and the banter is easy as wetsuits tug and squeak into place. We file out in twos and threes, costumed for the performance of penguin-keeping, through the gates, down a ladder, and into the frigid, gently churning waters of the tray.

Once on exhibit, we move with purpose. Rockhoppers stand atop their island, basting themselves in a gush of chilled air, greeting the keepers with studied indifference. Slipping through a submerged gate into the Africans’ waters, however, I am met by a slow-motion flock of some dozen floating birds, who dartingly inspect me for food. As I set off on a lunar hop through chest-deep water, the penguins form up in escort, some cresting the current ahead while others draft behind. Vital in their buoyancy, birds wheel and shift direction with the merest tail-flicks; in a flash, one will shoot beneath the surface and rocket up, porpoising, hurtling over the water at flight speeds. A juvenile crests along at my elbow, orbiting whenever I stop to shift my equipment, issuing a low, plaintive croak at intervals.

As the feed begins, we stand in water to our midriffs while the penguins crowd out of the water onto the islands; they scramble into shoreline queues, looking down at us, jostling for position. We present each fish according to a strict protocol: dipped in seawater and offered headfirst, on its side, dorsal fin to the right. Birds shoulder into each other, falling in frantic plops into the water; they nick our fingers with their quick, eager beaks. The feed is rapid, riotous, intense—and yet we take time to count the fish ingested by each bird, tallying them up in pencil on plastic boards. Back in the office, we will transfer these numbers to paper log sheets, maintaining a strict metabolic accounting of each bird through what might be a 30-year lifetime on exhibit. Tallying hurriedly, identifying each bird by the colored plastic band it wears on its wing, I catch a glimpse of the gallery above, where visitors throng the railings to watch the hungry birds.

Like the feedings, cleaning the penguin tray is both necessary maintenance and a performance. With practiced speed, crewmembers hose down the islands’ grotty surfaces, scrubbing away clots of guano and half-digested fish. We wrestle buckets of soft-drink orange disinfectant onto the islands’ ledges, and clamber up with mammal ungainliness, the visitors now watching us with fascination.

The aquarium is like a ship turned inside out: its technical systems are designed to keep an ocean on the inside. And yet even with a vast apparatus of pumps and filters to manage the movement of seawater in and out of the many exhibits, our cleaning labor is crucial for maintaining a healthy environment for birds and people. In a sense, the penguin crew is not only the food web of this this inward sea, but its wind and waves and weather as well: scouring and renewing surfaces, balancing flows of energies and materials. So we scrub quickly, on our hands and knees; by the time we wriggle out of our wetsuits to break for lunch, our knuckles are fiberglass-chapped, our fingertips bird-bitten.

Radically other to each other, penguins and people nonetheless come to share a form of life in the aquarium’s churning, frigid water.

After our own meal, it’s time to replenish the food supply for the penguins, who get a second feed in the afternoon. In the prep room, we ready the morning’s now-empty food trays with a vigorous bout of cleaning; constellations of roe and ice and scales swirl down the drains. We retrieve boxes from the freezer and dump out frozen smelts, which chime like xylophone keys as they clatter across the stainless tables. In stark contrast to the carefully gathered and intensively bred creatures on exhibit, these feed fish are commodities, arriving in cartons emblazoned with the logos of seafood suppliers from around the globe, frost-furred and stacked on pallets. Beyond the stage set of the exhibit, fishing trawlers, canneries, air-shippers—not to mention vast schools of baitfish and krill teeming in dark waters—are also actors in this penguin performance.

In its conjugation of exoticism and care, of maintenance and marine-biological curiosity, the penguin exhibit seems a strange complement to more familiar animal-human relations. It’s a far cry from the paradigmatic bond between human and dog as charted by Donna Haraway who, in her Companion Species Manifesto, notes that canines are “partners in the crime of human evolution” (2003, 5). As Haraway puts it, dogs enjoy relations with humans that are charged with “significant otherness,” confounding linear genealogies of history and biology, evolution and culture.

Penguins and people, by contrast, have had little time to enchant and entangle over the longue durée. Our encounters mostly take place in the highly staged environments of aquarium and zoo, where, Brian Massumi has observed, “animals are set off from the background in such a way as to put them on display as essentially visual figures.” On exhibit, animals become “mere biological life under the categorical rule of the laws of nature” (2014, 66). For Massumi, zoo creatures are fixed as examples of “bare life,” denied even a subsidiary role in social relations.

And yet for penguins and their keepers as I have come to know them, distinctions between bare life and personhood are not so simple and ordered. Although we lack the long histories of care and entangled dependencies shared by dogs and humans, aquarium birds and those who keep them perform a distinctive sociality, an improvised utopia of amphibious maintenance and care. Like any utopia, it’s an image—however messy, bloody, and intimate it is in the making.

I think of Eduardo Kohn (2013, 134), writing of the forested ways of his Amazon-dwelling informants:

The multispecies encounter is a particularly important domain for cultivating an ethical practice…. We are confronted with an otherness that is radically (significantly) other—without, I would add, that otherness being radically incommensurable…. they force us to find new ways to listen; they force us to think beyond our moral worlds in ways that can help us imagine and realize more just and better worlds.

Radically other to each other, penguins and people nonetheless come to share a form of life in the aquarium’s churning, frigid water. A visitor can peer down into the tray, observe a few damp penguins shaking the water from their feathers, and consume a scene of bare life, of creatures shorn of context and connection. But regarding closely the mingling ways of penguins and their keepers, the attentive viewer glimpses a richer, more complicated set of relations performed and unfolded.

What then is this relationship, so far removed from the companionable symbioses of the dog and other domesticated animals? The penguin exhibit is framed with placards that tell of evolution and reproduction, of molting feathers, of climate change; wall-mounted maps indicate the far-flung islands of the southern ocean, specks of earth where colonies perch. But the archipelago these penguins occupy is far stranger than any mapped here: an ecological niche afloat in a sea of plush toys and music videos, of veterinarians and Portuguese fishing vessels. To maintain these birds in the peculiar embrace of Haraway’s significant otherness entails a synthesis of technical practices, scientific imaginaries, and the intimacies of husbandry. The ethics of animal care live not only in questions of right and agency, but in affective dispositions and skillful labor. In the midst of the aquarium’s swirling waters, penguins and people perform a form of life predicated on care and empathy, of rigor and room to dive.

Matthew Battles is associate director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, where he explores the lives of data in and out of collections of books, objects, and other living things. His most recent book, Tree, was published in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.

Sean Myers is a middle school student who practices origami to develop his creativity and ability to see beyond the next fold. Inspired by the work of physicist and artist Robert J. Lang, he is currently at work on a series of large origami creatures that involve multiple entangled folds.

Cite as: Battles, Matthew. 2019. “Performing Penguin Care.” Anthropology News website, May 16, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1165