The Penguin Principle

First Grade Boy Steals Penguin

That’s what the stand up comedian I’m listening to said the headline was.  “True story” he said,” swear on my mother’s grave”.

As he told it, it would seem that the little boy was on a trip to the zoo with his class.  They were looking at the Penguin exhibit and the boy decided he just had to have one.  So, when nobody was looking, he evacuated all of the superfluous contents of his backpack (because who needs math and history when you’ve got a freaking Penguin!?) put the bag on the ground and opened it up.  And a penguin crawled out of its enclosure and into the bag.

The little boy zipped up the backpack and wore it around all day, all the way home on the bus.  Imagine his Mom’s surprise when she walked in from the kitchen to see a live penguin on her coffee table, staring her precious angel-faced baby boy right in the eye.

Of course she was in shock so we can’t blame her that the first question out of her mouth requested the least useful piece of information under the circumstances: “What is that?”

As small children tend to do, the little boy cut through the confusion and uselessness of his mother’s question and stated the simple truth: “He likes me!”

Now that the penguin is safely back in the zoo (although if he chose a black hole and a first grader over his zoo accommodations I have some questions) all of that is a funny story.  But then the comedian made a point that I’m making the point of this post.

First grade boy did not steal a penguin.  He didn’t scale a fence, swim a moat, and chase a penguin down with a net in an epic struggle of first grader vs. flightless bird.

First grade boy created a NEW OPTION.  He opened his backpack and the penguin ostensibly surveyed his surroundings, looked into the sincere face of a first grade boy and the backpack he was being offered and made a choice to try something different.

I think sometimes those of us who have opted out of the toxic culture of body hate, and come up happier on the other side,  want other people to have that so badly that we push too hard – trying to change other people’s lives or viewpoints; trying to “empower” people by force.  Or we can take ourselves too seriously and think that we are changing people’s lives – that we are empowering people – when the truth is that the only thing that we can ever do create a new option, and give people the chance to change their own lives.

With our day to day living and interactions, our blogs, our work, our personal choices, what we post to social media, we can introduce people to a perspective that they might not have considered before, open a dialog, and give them a choice they didn’t realize they had. To me the core of activism is to live from a perspective that works for you and share that perspective with others authentically and without any obligation.  They can take it or leave it – as long as they know that it’s an option, we’ve done our job.  We can never change someone’s mind – they have to do that, it being their mind and all –  but we may be able to expand it with a new idea, a new perspective, a new option and that is powerful.

EDIT:  Public Service Announcement:  Someone who studied law has pointed out in the comments that the boys actions did indeed constitute theft.  I meant the story as a bit of a parable but in case that wasn’t clear, I’m not endorsing stealing animals from the zoo.  Thanks!

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22 thoughts on “The Penguin Principle

  1. I am sorry but my law studies say: the little boy DID steal the penguin … Penguins are animals, they can be owned. So the little boy took something that was not his (no matter if he lured it into his back pack or stuffed it there) and took it home to keep it! He ended somebody’s hold on the object penguin by confining the penguin to the back pack where only he had access to it. Then he left the premises and took the penguin to a place unknown to the legal owner with the goal to keep the bird. THAT IS STEALING! It is no burglary, that would have involved to “break” into some guarded or locked space. It is not robbery, the boy did not use force against the owner or his keepers. But he still stole it! Penguins cannot make legally acknowledged choices. Not yet …
    I understand where you want to go with this example, but the penguin is a legal object, not a legal subject.

    1. Yes, franhunne4u, it is in legal terms still theft, assuming the child is considered to have the capacity to understand his crime, which he may not.

      Still, like most parables, this is not a question of whether the boy would be charged with theft under the law, nor whether this actually happened. Neither of these things matters any more than it matters whether there was an actual, specific Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan. And I can’t imagine any adult listening to this story and going off to coax penguins out of their enclosures because they don’t get that it will end badly.

      If nothing else, most of our homes are not set up for ideal penguin temperatures and enough water for penguins to go about their penguin business.

      It’s all about the moral of the story, not the story itself.

      But yes, I do absolutely agree that going to the zoo and offering the animals another option is neither practically sound nor legally defensible.

    2. I think anyone who came away from this thinking that I’m endorsing the idea that it is ok to go to the zoo and try to get an animal into their backpack missed the point by at least a couple hundred miles, but if they did then your comment will definitely help them understand the legal basis for the wrongness of that action. Thanks!


      1. I never once said you were encouraging theft! I just wanted to point out that your statement, that is was no theft as the penguin climbed into the back pack by itself was not legally accurate. Sorry, that is the long-term-side effect of my years in university … Never wanted to cast a shadow of a doubt on your blog. I love it! I was nitpicking, if you want to name it so. Because part of me will think in legal terms forever, I’m afraid.

  2. I like the analogy, because it reminds me about something my mother always said about her religion. She didn’t believe in going around preaching and going door to door. She said the only thing she could do was live the best life she could and be an example to others.

    Regarding making a difference and activism, when I posted something about my depression and an article about it on twitter last year, one of my friends found the courage to go get help for depression I didn’t even know she had. It was 6 months later that she finally thanked me, and I had no idea.

    I had another friend message me recently on facebook to thank me for giving her a different perspective on body image just because I happen to share a lot of body positive messages (including your articles and that amazing video!). I haven’t spoken to this friend in a long time, so it was nice to see that me sharing my opinion was making a difference in her life.

    I always feel like I don’t do enough to show people that there’s a different way to think and that they don’t HAVE to hate their bodies since I don’t have a blog and I’m not out there doing activism. I barely feel like I make a stand at all as a fat person, because I’m still struggling to fight the “omg, must wear black and blend in to everything and I don’t deserve nice clothes”. I haven’t figured out how to own it, but I am learning to accept myself where I am, and maybe one day that will come.

    But thank you for giving me a different perspective 2 years ago when a friend shared a post of yours on Facebook. I’m leaps and bounds better off than I was back then. So thank you 🙂

    1. Exactly! I think it’s been about a year that I had this option offered up to me, and I know the acquaintance who posted it wasn’t aiming it at me at all. I now need to remember that it’s the quiet non-confrontational nature of it that got ME to pay attention, and stop giving myself a high-blood-pressure headache trying to argue with those whose minds are never going to be changed anyway. I can let myself be the message by living happy.

  3. I forget this sometimes. I get really frustrated when I can’t MAKE people SEE. I shall have to have ‘you’re not stealing penguins’ tattooed somewhere on my body. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  4. Hi Ragen,

    I thought you might want to know that you spelled “moat” wrong. I’m not trying to go all spelling police on you, but just in case you cared I thought I’d point it out. Feel free to delete this, whatever you do with moat.


    1. I can’t even call this a typo, I’ve been spelling moat wrong my entire life (though happily I don’t think it comes up very often!) Thanks for letting me know 🙂


      1. There are some misspellings I call thinkos rather than typos.

        In extreme cases, they’re better world misspellings. In a better world, ‘relevent’ would be given three e’s (this is much more orderly and reasonable), rather than being the usual ‘relevant’.

  5. I’ve been talking about fat acceptance and health at every size on my facebook, on my blog, and with others. I think my partner is finally starting to realize he has another option. While looking through pictures with him this weekend, he said of one of my relatives: “She got fat. Not that that’s a bad thing.” So I think he’s definitely starting to see things a little differently. I think he’s met enough of my family by now to realize that yes, most of us are fat.

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