Please stop showing me to the other animals.

A guest op-ed from a beleaguered penguin at your local aquarium.

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I have to be honest with you. 

I understand that this is an unprecedented and uniquely challenging time in modern history. The strains the pandemic have put on your society are widespread, profound, and hard to even fully comprehend yet. Tens of millions of people have been put out of work; hundreds of millions have been forced to stay at home — and that’s to say nothing of the many people directly afflicted by this horrible illness. I recognize that my problems are small in comparison to others. But still, I can no longer stay silent about what I’m going through, and what I need from you going forward.

You have to stop showing me to the other animals.

I get what you were doing. First, it was just one aquarium that did it — taking advantage of their unusual lack of patrons to let the resident penguins wander the public areas of their facility and view the other animals. Everyone had a nice little laugh about it. Then a second place did it, and a third, and it just became a whole thing. Within a week, if you were an aquarium of any size and you didn’t show your penguins to your other animals, people were going to be on your case on social media wondering what was wrong with you. Wondering why you weren’t providing moments of whimsy to your stressed-out public. I get that.

It’s been a month, though. 

That first week, I played along. I acted like it was a once-in-a-lifetime treat for me to see the other kinds of animals who live in this same second-tier marine attraction in a mid-sized American city. I smiled at the dolphins. I posed in front of the manatee. I stared at the ray tank, waiting for the rays to be interesting.

But you just kept doing it. 

By the second week, it wasn’t even really a thing online anymore. The pictures you tweeted weren’t getting nearly as much engagement. The novelty had worn off. Perhaps people were more concerned with their evaporating retirements or the suddenly-daunting logistics of procuring groceries, and any sense of whimsy they’d found amidst the difficulties of social quarantine was gone. I’m not really sure. To be honest, I don’t really care. I’m a penguin. I’m just trying to get through my own day.

Every day this week, it’s been the same. I’m in the middle of my morning routine: I climb up on the big rock, I ruffle my feathers dry, and then I dive back into the water, swim exactly two laps, and then repeat. Once I’ve done this six or seven times, I treat myself to a small fish. It’s a good, solid routine, and one I’ve worked hard to refine in the eighteen months since I was transferred here after that zoo I was at in Akron burned down.

But every day this week, right as I’m on my third or fourth cycle, before I’ve had my fish, Ashley shows up.

Ashley seems nice. Youthful enthusiasm, love of the job, all that. I find that a lot of the people that work at these places are like that. Just excited to come to work every day. It’s kind of grating, but you can look past it in small doses. You’re excited to see a penguin, I’m a penguin, fine. Ashley’s been so excited. “Skittles!”, she says — that’s my name, Skittles, it’s very demeaning but I’ve moved past that and I expect you to move past it as well — “Skittles, it’s time to go see the other animals!” She gets me out of my enclosure, and I have to waddle through the whole facility acting excited to be there. 

First, we’ve got to go through Where’s The Reef? and see the clownfish. Those little bastards have been so full of themselves ever since Finding Nemo, and it’s like, that movie was almost 20 years ago? You weren’t alive then. You’re only alive now because aquariums have specifically bred more of you to cash in on the enduring popularity of that movie and the fact that Disney can’t copyright fish. So, yeah, congratulations. You’re a bootleg t-shirt of a fish. Finding Normo.

Then it’s down the hallway to Shark Raving Mad, and Ashley wants me to look like I’m scared because there’s sharks there. Listen, you get a Great White in here, I’ll show some respect. I know how much damage those guys can do, even in a supposedly-secure marine entertainment attraction. I’ve seen Jaws 3-D. (They showed us a lot of movies in Akron.)

But these aren’t Great Whites you’ve got here. They’re barely sharks at all. They don’t even have intimidating names! Pyjama shark? Epaulette shark? Sand shark? Carpet Shark? That sounds like a new kind of vacuum no one’s investing in on Shark Tank. Can’t even get funding on your own show. That bald Canadian guy is a better shark than you. There’s that weird shark that looks like a saw? I know it’s supposed to be scary and tough but he just looks like one of those weird superfans at a Raiders game. 

And don’t get me started on the Nurse Shark. That’s just straight disrespectful calling yourself that right now if you’re not working at a hospital. Stolen valor-ass shark. 

Then it’s down the staircase — yeah, you probably saw the video she posted of me hopping down the stairs, awww, how cute, they hop! — yeah, let’s see who’s a better swimmer, smartass. We’ve gotta waddle past 20,000 Eats Under The Sea and I’m forced to consider how messed up it is that you serve Fish & Chips here, but also it makes me hungry.

We pass by the gift shop, Water You Going To Remember About Me?, and I see all the ridiculous things you sell there. Why do you sell stuffed pandas? There are no pandas here. There are no pandas in the ocean at all. Sure, the kids love them, but c’mon, at least pretend to have an educational ethos. 

Finally, we get to the worst part of my day. 

The damn dolphins.

I know it’s your most popular attraction, A Bad Day Dolphin’ Is Better Than A Good Day At Work, but I hate it. I hate it with my life. They’re so smug. So arrogant. So convinced that they’re god’s gift to marine-based entertainment venues. Squeaking and squawking at each other like ohhh look at the dumb loser penguin he’s out for a walk with Ashley again eeek eeek eeek. Yeah. They think I don’t know what they’re saying. It’s not a hard language, assholes. I do Duolingo. I stay sharp.

But they know they’ve got it up on me. All of ‘em, they know it. The smug dolphins, the lame nerd sharks, even the cash-grab clownfish. They can’t walk. They know that nobody’s gonna take them out of the water and make them strut around for a few cheap social media likes. They know that’s all on me, and they think it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever seen.

So please… just let me be. Let me swim around my tank and shake off on my big wet rock. Let me eat some fish. You can even take me into that little room where you’d normally bring in the tourists who paid extra to pet me and take some extra pictures.

But for the love of god, stop showing me to the other animals. 

Skittles, the Penguin

(as dictated to Scott Hines (@actioncookbook) over Zoom)