Boston Aquarium Dispels Penguin Urban Legend

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The New England Aquarium in Boston called a press conference Thursday to dispel an urban legend that a 12-year-old boy with autism had abducted one of its penguins. The aquarium's spokesman Tony LaCasse says no such abduction took place and all the aquarium's penguins are present and accounted for.


Perhaps it's the surprise success of the movie "March of the Penguins" or possibly it's a misunderstanding of the Proud Parent Animal Adoption program at Boston's New England Aquarium, where you contribute money to help them feed and care for the animal of your choice for one year. For whatever reason, a story of penguin abduction from the aquarium gained such currency that the New England Aquarium was obliged to offer a public denial yesterday. Tony LaCasse is spokesperson for the aquarium and joins us from Boston.

Tell us about this story that has made the rounds throughout New England.

Mr. TONY LaCASSE (Spokesperson, New England Aquarium): Well, Robert, we had a story of--it has many different variations, but the essential story usually is that a 12-year-old boy with autism somehow gets into our penguin pool and, in the chaos of removing him, he tucks a penguin either under his jacket or into his backpack. And what happens is he then goes home and he's quietly in his bathroom, and his mother discovers him playing with a penguin chick in the bathtub. And it just gained unbelievable veracity.

SIEGEL: And your colleagues, who work with penguins at the aquarium, they obviously would be prime targets to be asked about this story.

Mr. LaCASSE: Actually, all staff were...


Mr. LaCASSE: ...not only just the penguin biologists, but we did have one of our penguin biologists--his mother actually called him and wanted to know what the true story was. And for several weeks we really just tried to ignore it, and then it just became so pervasive, we actually had a major newspaper here in Boston call us about six or seven different times and...

SIEGEL: `Come clean about the abducted penguin,' they're saying.

Mr. LaCASSE: Yes, exactly.

SIEGEL: So in order to attempt to lay to rest this story, you actually have--you conducted an official census of your penguin population there.

Mr. LaCASSE: Yeah, we actually do every day. In the morning we hand-feed all our penguins. We have 61 penguins of three different species. But just for the sake of that, to be able to, you know, show people that, you know, here are these birds and they're all in good shape, and also to demonstrate to people that for a child to be able to do this would really almost be impossible.

SIEGEL: Now you directed us to the Web site that tracks urban legends.

Mr. LaCASSE: Yes.

SIEGEL: And this one they have heard coming over from Britain in 2005, but also a version of it as early as 1993. It always involves a penguin, but it involves either in one case an overactive child; in another case a 12-year-old with Down syndrome; in another case, someone in his 20s who's mentally challenged with the mind of a 12-year-old. What do you think is the relationship here between either youth or some kind of disability and penguins?

Mr. LaCASSE: I think actually there's an attraction to penguins in that they're a bird that is intriguing to people, yet it also is non-threatening to them. And I think what happens is that we have sort of an innocent involved, you know, taking another innocent.

SIEGEL: Now I don't want to encourage any penguin-napping or inspire anyone to do this, but those who handle penguins, if they pick them up, are they actually docile when you pick them up, or do penguins have a temper?

Mr. LaCASSE: Oh, no, penguins have a very good temper. In fact, we never directly handle the penguin ourselves. They are a wild animal. They'll defend themselves, and their beaks are very sharp. They're...

SIEGEL: So the penguin in the child's backpack is--while it's a charming image, it's not a very realistic one.

Mr. LaCASSE: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us, and once again, you're going to leave us with the word that all the penguins are present and accounted for at the New England Aquarium?

Mr. LaCASSE: Yes, all 61 are accounted for.

SIEGEL: That's Tony LaCasse, who is the spokesperson for the New England Aquarium in Boston.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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