Skepticism

Penguin Murder

Can you murder a penguin? Really? The BBC news team seem to think so.

Penguin Murders Prompt Sniper Aid, proclaims the headline. I don’t generally enjoy falling back on dictionary definitions of things, but as my own understanding of the word murder generally involves human beings, I had to go see what consensus says. Consensus agrees. The unlawful killing of one human by another, especially with premeditated malice.

I dislike anthropomorphism, but I understand why it happens. What really puzzled me about this story, though, was this sentence:

The main suspects are dogs and foxes.

Really? We’re treating penguins as murder victims and dogs and foxes as suspects? The national park has deployed snipers (that’s humans with guns) to shoot on sight any of the serial killers. I can only assume that penguins are cuter than dogs and foxes and not as numerous, and therefore not as disposable. I have no issue with interfering in the ‘natural order’ of things, but I do have an issue with painting dogs and foxes as some sort of evil-doers when they’re just doing what dogs and foxes do. As this is all taking place in Australia, I’m looking forward to the kangaroo court.

UPDATE: BBC NEWS HAS CHANGED THE HEADLINE FROM ‘MURDERS’ TO ‘DEATHS’. Presumably I wasn’t the only one to think their original melodrama was silly.

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22 Comments

  1. Maybe the dog/fox was trying to put a stop to the fish-genocide the penguin had been engaging in? Of course, the penguin killed the fish to put an end to the plankton-holocaust the fish had been wreaking… How far down the food chain do the BBC want to go?

  2. I suspect they ‘cutseyed’ it up to get some attention for the story when everything else at the moment seems to be about the rescue to the latest Brit getting lost in the Blue Mountains.

    Also animated ‘animal films’ like ‘Happy feet’, ‘Finding Nemo’, ‘Flushed Away’ and ‘Up’ and don’t help with projecting ‘animals are just humans in a furry/fluffy/scaly suit’ messages.

  3. In the States, we’d apprehend the dog/wolf after a national canid-hunt. The alleged serial penguin killer’s case would drag through the courts for two years, as a famous defense attorney filed motion after motion. The trial would be on Court TV.

    If the alleged killer wasn’t acquitted (“If the bite doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”), he’d languish in a “correctional facility”, convert to Evangelical Christianity, have a dozen psychologists and true-crime novelists analyze him, and finally get stabbed to death by a fellow inmate, possibly a walrus.

  4. On the other hand, if the victims were chickens, the cops would nab the first hound dog in the vicinity, rush it through a trial with an incompetent public defender, and kill it by lethal injection as soon as possible … lest some do-gooder “rights of the accused” type unearth DNA evidence to exonorate it.

  5. The penguin colonies mentioned are right in the middle of Sydney, actually in Sydney harbour. Imagine a wild penguin colony on the other side of the Hudson river facing Manhattan Island. My NY Geography might not be perfect, but that’s the context.

    A part of the Australian psyche is a very strong awareness of how thoroughly the wonderful and bizarre native wildlife of this country has been decimated by feral animals, such as foxes, dogs, cats, goats, pigs, toads, rabbits, birds etc.

    These Fairy Penguins (and yes, they are cute as hell) are somewhat representative of the country as a whole, and while it is transference of guilt from the true perpetrators of feral animal problems (people), I think when it comes to feral animals most Australians these days will steel ourselves and get our genocide on, if that’s the price to preserve an isolated native population.

    As for anthropomorphising , treating animal mysteries with the language of courtroom drama has been around for ever. You probably shouldn’t assume people are actually attributing humanistic malice to the target species.

    There’s a better report from local news outlets here:

    http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/07/13/2624341.htm

  6. @matt_g: I’ve never seen animals killing other animals described as murder by a news outlet before. Never. Can you find me another example? I flagged it up because I am amazed that the BBC chooses to reflect its readership this way – the BBC is either sensationalising, or using a definition of the word ‘murder’ that is not the common one. Either way, I think it’s worth flagging. And at the least, I get to make a kangaroo court joke.

  7. @Tracy: Oh there’s been lots of documentaries screened here using the courtroom / police investigation metaphor. I even remember a kids educational show in the 80s “Earthwatch” used to do a “natives on trial” special every now and then where they’d put the case for and against native species (such as sharks).

    Sure they’re putting a edutainment spin on it, but let’s face it – it’s a story about marksmen being deployed to protect penguins, and it’s happening in the biggest city of a place that most people picture as being filled with beer swilling alcaholics and deadly wildlife.

    Sure, perhaps a creative writing angle might not be the best idea for news reportage, but given the material, some levity isn’t excessive. It’s always possible the BBC are assuming their readership will see it for the less than serious report it is.

  8. @FFFearlesss: The only think I find surprising about that is Sydney has the opposite lattitude of Arkansas. AR is 33 N, Sydney is 33 S. I find that surprising because I want to say that similar lattitudes would have similar temperature swings. AR usually swings from 10F to 100F, annual low and high, respectively. I’m not sure where the penguins are during what time of the year.

  9. @Andrew Nixon: Maybe these?

    http://www.siec.k12.in.us/west/proj/penguins/little.html

    The Little penguins prefer the warm waters off southern Australia and New Zealand. They hunt small fish and squid in the shallow waters close to the shore during the day. At night they come onshore after dark to sleep and return to the waters before dawn each morning. Since they feed in the shallow waters close to shore they are easy to see from land.

    Awwww

  10. As funny as the story is (hey I twittered it I love the idea of penguins defended by snipers) this does have a serious side. Foxes may just be doing what they do but the simple fact is that humans introduced them to Australia. They aren’t native to the continent and have done an incredible amount of damage to local wildlife.

  11. Just updated the post. One does not assume BBC editorial reads Skepchick, but one does assume that either other readers emailed them, or the intern who wrote the original headline got smacked by an editor. Or some other scenario I can’t be bothered to think about. Anyway, the murderers are vindicated! Justice prevails!

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