Pint-Sized Penguin Sweaters Are No Hoax, Foundation Says

Barbara Boland
By Barbara Boland | March 12, 2014 | 5:30 PM EDT

Knitters sent rescued penguins at the Phillip Island Penguin Foundation in Australia sweaters last week - but afterwards, the foundation was criticized and rumors spread that the sweaters were part of a hoax.

The Foundation wants to reassure everyone that the tiny, penguin-sized sweaters do in fact warm penguins after they're caught in an oil spill:

This is not a fashion statement!

These knitted penguin jumpers play an important role in saving little penguins affected by oil pollution. A patch of oil the size of a thumb nail can kill a little penguin. Oiled penguins often die from exposure and starvation. Oil separates and mats feathers, allowing water to get in which makes a penguin very cold, heavy and less able to successfully hunt for food.

When oiled penguins are admitted to the Wildlife Clinic at Phillip Island Nature Parks, a knitted jumper is placed on the penguins to prevent them from preening and swallowing the toxic oil before they are washed and the oil removed by staff.

453 little penguins were affected by the last major oil spill near Phillip Island in 2001. 96% were successfully saved and rehabilitated at the Wildlife Clinic and released back into the wild.

Penguins show off their new sweaters.

When the Foundation started, they only had a 50-60% success rate of releasing birds to the wild, so the 96% success rate represents a significant improvement. The sweaters play a vital role in drawing the oil out of the bird's feathers, keeping the penguins from swallowing the oil, and keeping the birds warm during transit (before they are cleaned).

"The oil spill never happens on the doorstep, and sometimes it takes days to get the penguins to you," said Dr. Peter Dann, who founded the penguin rehabilitation program 30 years ago in his backyard.

"The oil coating mattes the plumage together. It's like getting holes in your wetsuit, and part of the thinking about the jumpers was to keep [the penguins] at a slightly warmer temperature."

Knitters have been generous in their penguin sweater-making, and the group currently has more than they need.

The knitters' good intentions are undeniable, though their fashion sense might be open to debate.