Interview With The Penguin Lady

Dyan deNapoli, also known as the “The Penguin Lady,” worked for years as the senior penguin aquarist at the New England Aquarium. Today she is an outspoken activist for animal rights, recently presenting at the TEDxBoston conference. In 2000, deNapoli, who grew up in Marblehead, Massachusetts traveled to South Africa as part of an international team of experts to save 40,000 penguins from an oil spill after a vessel called “The Treasure” capsized. Within three months, 95 percent of the birds were saved and released back to their natural habitat — inspiring deNapoli’s recently published book, “The Great Penguin Rescue”.

Recently deNapoli took time out from her busy schedule to speak about her work with penguins and how she became the “Penguin Lady”.

How did you become ‘The Penguin Lady’?

Penguin Lady - Dyan diNapoli

I went back to school in 1992 to get a [Bachelor of Science degree] in animal science. I was studying veterinary nursing, and wanted to do that since I was 5, so I went back to school at age 32 to do that. During the course of my education, I worked with the penguins everyday for four months. Once I met them, I was enchanted. They’re really engaging. They have a lot of personality. I applied to the New England Aquarium and gained a position there.

In the wild, African penguins live 10 or 20 years but at the aquarium, they can double or triple their life expectancy. We had this one penguin named Robin, who was kind of famous. She lived to be 39 years old.

Are penguins intelligent?

They’re very intelligent and very adaptable. One of the examples of that is, when we were in South Africa for the rescue, there had been another oil rescue six years before. During that they had to force feed the penguins because they’re wild … they taught them how to take food freely. It took them a few days to figure it out. During the “Treasure” rescue, we taught them how to pre-feed again but the really interesting thing was the first birds to make that transition were the ones that had the band from the oil spill six before. They remembered; it clicked with them … It shows me just how smart they are.

Your local TED talk was about being vigilant in the rescue of animals. Are people opposed to that?

I think during the BP oil spill (in 2010), which most of the world probably knows about, this [aquatic expert] was quoted in Seagull Magazine saying we should just euthanize these birds because studies show 1 percent survive after being released … But [this expert] was quoting research that was 15 years old from one very specific series …When I read this article and saw it was being quoted in a lot of places, I got very worked up.

I think its important for people to know this is not accurate information for the most part. These rescue efforts are valid [and] worthwhile. We’re working with species that has a very high survivability rate. If we know they’re endangered, it’s imperative we take the time and the money to put all these resources towards rescuing these animals.

What would you say to children who dream of working with animals?

I always loved animals and I knew I wanted to work with them and the only option I knew was being a veterinarian. But I wasn’t good at math so I was scared off. I didn’t know … about the field of ethology (animal behavior) — that’s what I was really fascinated by.

I would tell kids who are interested to study in your science classes and to speak to people that are in a field that is interesting to you. Find out what they studied, what they know … to find out the realities of working in the field. I think people might look at working with dolphins and penguins as very glamorous, but it’s actually smelly, dirty, exhausting work. It’s good to volunteer and find out if it’s a good field you.

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