Penguin Sweaters: To Knit or Not To Knit?

With World Penguin Day in the rear view mirror, conservation organizations are working 24 / 7 to raise awareness of the threats facing the world’s 17 species of penguin. We’re doing our part at Penguin Place by helping you understand the cutest penguin activism controversy ever, which has consumed — one might even say snuggled — the Internet more than a few times in recent years.  Whether or not it is a good idea to knit a sweater for a penguin in distress.

1. Wait, what? Why do penguins need sweaters? I thought they were threatened by the earth getting too hot!

Penguins face a lot of threats. Global warming is definitely one — according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 12 of the 17 species of penguins are threatened by climate change. But some penguin species are also threatened by pollution, particularly oil spills. When penguins come into contact with oil in the wake of a spill, conservationists put them in sweaters so they don’t try to eat the oil off their feathers before they can be washed off. After they’re washed, the sweaters help keep the penguins warm, and waterproof, until their feathers and natural oils can recover.


2. What type of penguins are we talking about here?

The most famous “sweaters for penguins” campaigns have been for the species of penguins called Little Blue penguins, who live in Australia and New Zealand, and the endangered African penguins who live along the coasts of South Africa.  Here’s what a Little Blue penguin looks like when not covered in oil:


Here’s what they look like when they are:


3. Real talk: does putting penguins in sweaters actually work?

The Penguin Foundation, which exists solely to protect Australia’s little penguin population, certainly thinks it does. They work with the  Tasmanian Conservation Trust on the “Knits for Nature” program, which has actually existed for over a decade. The first public sweaters-for-penguins campaign, after an oil spill in Tasmania in 2002, produced 15,000 sweaters. Some were used immediately, and the rest were put in emergency kits around Tasmania.


4. Isn’t it uncomfortable for the penguin?

Some bird researchers think it is. The organization International Bird Rescue points out that penguins overheat easily, so putting an oil-smothered penguin in a layer of thick wool might not be the best idea. Additionally, traumatized wild penguins might not like the added stress of a human being putting something over their heads and onto their bodies. And if the sweater prevents some of the oil from evaporating off the penguin, it could exacerbate the damage of the spill.

5. Do conservationists still use penguin sweaters?

Yes, but they already have plenty. Between the original stockpile of sweaters, a 2011 campaign (run by a knitting site) that went viral, and the sweaters charities get from random people who hear about penguins needing sweaters, the Knits for Nature campaign has plenty in reserve. You’re welcome to knit a sweater for a penguin if you really want — the pattern is available here.  But if it’s made of the wrong kind of wool, is the wrong size, or is just one sweater too many, the Penguin Foundation will put it on a stuffed penguin to sell as a way to raise awareness about little penguin conservation. That’s what happens to most of the sweaters they receive.


Generally, charities tend to prefer that you donate money rather than goods. The original penguin campaign was an exception, because of the urgent need (and because they couldn’t order them from a factory). But this is a good lesson that the donation you want to make might not be the donation the charity needs.

6. How threatened are little penguins, anyway?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which runs the official Red List of Threatened Species, has the threat level for Little penguins set to its lowest level: Least Concern. This makes them much less threatened than a lot of other penguin species: 15 of 17 species of penguins are at a higher threat level, and 5 of them are officially “endangered,” according to the IUCN.

7. What kind of penguins should I be worried about?

The IUCN lists the African, erect-crested, Galapagos, Northern Rockhopper, and Yellow-eyed penguins as “endangered.” They range in population size from 265,000 Northern Rockhopper breeding pairs to only 1,700 breeding pairs of yellow-eyed penguins.


8. Do those penguins need sweaters?

It’s debatable, but pollution isn’t the biggest threat facing these species. Most of them are immediately threatened by humans encroaching on and degrading their habitats, and need stronger protections for their foraging and breeding grounds.

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