Vietnam might be an unlikely choice of destination for avid penguin spotters, but a recent trip to South East Asia has shown me that things are not always as they seem. Animal lovers fear not, this is not a tale of animal cruelty and broiled birds. Instead, it is a lesson in international approaches to spreading the clean green message, and the use of penguins as receptacles to this effect. In short, it is about penguin rubbish bins.
The first time we saw a little black and white bird with an upturned beak and an empty Fanta bottle protruding from its jaws we thought ‘Aaaw, how sweet. What a novel way of dealing with the eyesore of public rubbish bins.’ It was somewhat out of place in the 40 degree heat, but the lush tropical surrounds just made the dichromatic colour scheme all the more noticeable. We duly deposited our Oreos packet into penguin’s beak as we exited the park and enjoyed the brief virtuous glow that such an action precipitated.
The second time we came across such a penguin was in the depths of a meandering limestone cave. While Antarctic species are not known for their spelunking abilities, New Zealand’s own Little Blue Penguins do nest in burrows, so the subterranean location of this critter was understandable. Most people continued on their way, photographing the gaudily lit stalactites and paying the form of the trash can no heed. I turned my camera in the other direction to capture the happy coincidence, then bought a fresh pack of Oreos at the snack stand by the exit.
The fourth time we saw a penguin rubbish bin we thought that perhaps there had been an extra zero added to an order at some point in the past. Maybe there was a surplus, so penguin bins were going cheap? There was a suspicious lack of mammalian or reptilian rubbish receptacles, so either it was an issue of supply and demand, or someone really didn’t like the polar critters. We were leaning towards the first option, right up until we visited the mines at Marble Mountain.
There, in the depths of a cave that was rich with geological and social history, we came face to face with a part of the mountain that was no longer mountain shaped at all. Instead, it boasted two flippers, two webbed feet, and a gaping mouth. This penguin shaped rubbish bin took the cake, both because of the craftsmanship demonstrated in the carving process and because of the way it blew our earlier theories out the window.
The penguin shaped rubbish bins weren’t an accident after all. There is something about their compact, oval form and protruding bellies that makes these critters a prime target for urban planners and their waste management division. If Happy Feet has been sending subliminal ecological messages to a generation of children, who knows what effect these penguin bins will have. Will they lead to the mass donation of crumpled food packaging to Penguin Rescue Shelters in coming years? If so, our marine birds had better develop a taste for High Fructose Corn Syrup quick-smart.
It’s a long shot, but so was heading to Vietnam on a penguin-themed holiday in the first place.