In Britain, a Missing Baby Penguin Prompts a National Soap Opera

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 23, 2005

LONDON, Dec. 22 -- Police ran down leads and the Royal Navy was on alert Thursday in the search for Toga, an 18-inch-tall baby penguin stolen from an Isle of Wight zoo Saturday night, creating a national soap opera rivaling Elton John's same-sex wedding for media coverage.

"We're all a bit ragged here, to say the least," said Kath Bright, manager of Amazon World Zoo Park, which has received nearly $13,000 in donations -- including $600 from the United States -- to offer as a reward for the safe return of the 9-pound South African jackass penguin.

The theft has been covered exhaustively in the British news media -- and by television stations as far away as Australia -- with airtime comparable to what Prime Minister Tony Blair's surprise visit to Iraq is receiving. Sky News, which had a grim-faced reporter live at Amazon World, showed photos of Toga throughout the day and urged anyone with information to call in.

"No questions asked," an anchor said. "We just want to get Toga back to his mum and dad."

The saga took a dark turn early Thursday after anonymous phone calls to Amazon World and to GMTV, a BBC morning television show, in which the caller said he had dumped Toga into Portsmouth harbor in a plastic bag.

Bright said the calls seemed to jibe with a report the zoo received Wednesday night. A boater returning from a trip through Portsmouth harbor told a friend: "It must be cold out there -- I've just seen a penguin." Bright said the friend, realizing it must have been Toga, called the zoo.

Police said they were investigating those reports. A spokesman for the Royal Navy said that while sailors were not actively searching for Toga, they were keeping their eyes open around the naval dockyards at Portsmouth, south of London.

As of Thursday night, Toga was still missing, and Bright said zookeepers were beginning to worry that he could starve to death. Bright said that before the theft, the 3-month-old was still being fed by his father, Oscar, and mother, Kyala. Because the parents put food directly down the baby's throat, Bright said, Toga wouldn't know how to find food and wouldn't accept any from humans.

"He hasn't got a clue," Bright said.

A motive remained murky, Bright said. Toga might have been stolen by a collector of exotic animals -- there are only about 170,000 South African jackass penguins in the wild and 150 in British zoos. Toga was the first penguin born at Amazon World.

"Or somebody could have thought it would make a cool Christmas present," Bright said, noting the current chicness of penguins due to "March of the Penguins," a popular French documentary about Emperor penguins narrated in English by American actor Morgan Freeman.

"Whatever their reason was," Bright said, "we're on a roller coaster here."

Bright said the outpouring of support from around the world had been gratifying.

One young girl sent the zoo an e-mail proposing a swap with the thief if Toga was stolen as a Christmas present. "I'll give you my new Xbox 360 in exchange," she wrote.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company