Penguins and Predators

I’d like to offer some comments regarding Jennifer Ladino’s argument in “For the Love of Nature”  that if we can see ourselves in the penguins adult,  who are protecting future penguin generations from demise, then perhaps we can also see ourselves in the predators, the threat to the film’s much heralded ‘new life’. The predator identification opens up the possibility of a more honest self-reflection, in which we come to terms with our frequent role as the perpetrators of the environmental destruction and social injustices associated with, in this case, global warming” (68). Ladino goes on to say that such self-reflection and predator identification is rather unlikely, “slim,” as she puts it, given that the “film’s love is so often negotiated through heteronormative kinship relations.” Another reason why identification with predators, such as the gull or seal who threaten the adult penguins and chick, is unlikely is that the film so clearly positions these creatures as the “bad guys,” the enemies of the penguins we have been taught to identify with and root for.

The film appeals to our emotions when the penguins show their heroism, are funny, form couples, or are the victims of predators—gulls, and seals that are shot to look like “Jaws”—but glosses over the fact that penguins too need to eat to survive; that is, they too are responsible for the death of other creatures. In fact, what is stressed in the film is the number of months the penguins go without food, in order to procreate, thus casting those who eat, and therefore kill, in a less idealized light than those who don’t eat/kill. When the females leave for their trek back to the ocean to fill their bellies with the krill that the soon to hatch chicks will need to survive, while the males tend to the eggs they are incubating, the film focuses on the hardship of the journey to the ocean and back, rather than on the procurement of food. In shifting the focus to the journey rather than the food procurement, the film glosses over the fact that the penguins’ principal source of nourishment, the krill (a small shrimp-like creature) is also in danger, not because of the penguins, but because of being overfished for use as fish meal for farmed salmon. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “krill are the keystone species of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. An essential food source not just for penguins but also for whales and seals, krill have declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s in some parts of the Southern Ocean.” According to the same report, the emperor penguin colony featured in the film has declined by 70 percent, not only due to the decline in krill, but also the early break-up of the ice shelves where the chicks hatch and to changes to the ocean habitat due to a warmer Antarctic. These environmental factors, including the impact of climate change on ecosystems and species, are obscured by the film’s focus on the anthropomorphic characteristics of the penguins, as rendered mostly by the interpretative voice-over narration.  Moreover, to the extent that the environment is even a factor, it is usually cast as a beautiful but hostile landscape, a threat to the penguins even as they have learned to adapt. By anthropomorphizing the penguins, with whom the film has taught us to identify, the film perpetuate a Western “tradition” of representing landscapes in polarized ways: as aesthetic objects of beauty to be enjoyed, or as threatening to survival and needing to be mastered.