Mr. Popper’s Penguins: Proper Pets?

Families are flocking to Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which grossed $18.2 million in its opening weekend. The film, based loosely on a 1930s children’s book by Richard and Florence Atwater, stars Jim Carrey as Tom Popper, a businessman whose life is thrown off course when he receives six Gentoo penguins in the mail. He hates them at first, but soon bonds with the creatures, who help him realize there are more important things in life than work.

It’s hard to watch Carrey’s waddling co-stars—apparently, at least eight real, trained penguins were involved—without entertaining the thought that a penguin would make a great pet (if that was legal). But would they? We asked Dyan deNapoli, aka “The Penguin Lady,” who worked with them for nine years at the New England Aquarium and wrote the book The Great Penguin Rescue.

She cleared up a few misconceptions in the film:

•    Mr. Popper’s penguins arrive in a wooden crate filled with dry ice. Seems easy enough, but you can’t really ship a penguin like that. At the very least, deNapoli says, they would need ventilation, and if it’s a long trip, you might even need to ride along in the cargo plane, making sure the animal is hydrated and cared for.

•    In the film, the penguins follow Mr. Popper everywhere and imitate his behavior. Some of this might happen, deNapoli says, if a penguin is raised by humans from the beginning, but it is unlikely to occur with an adult penguin—and even then, it wouldn’t be as entertaining as the Hollywood version. “It’s not going to be imitating you, but it may follow you around,” deNapoli says. “It’s probably not going to do a shuffle-ball-change.”

•    Mr. Popper discovers he can placate his penguins by turning on Charlie Chaplin films. In reality, there’s no evidence penguins can tell what’s happening on a television show. Penguins will follow shadows because of their hunting instincts, but chances are they won’t be entranced by The Great Dictator.

•    A Gentoo wouldn’t really sleep by your feet at night, like Mr. Popper’s penguins do. “They don’t sleep lying down,” deNapoli says. “They can sleep standing up and they usually will kind of tuck their beak under their wings.”

•    Although penguins can be trained to do simple tasks, it’s unlikely you would be able to potty train them the way Popper does. “They’re very smart,” says deNapoli, explaining that penguins respond to operant conditioning, a process by which animals come to associate a particular behavior with a particular consequence. “You can train them to target an object. You can train them to step on a scale. One of our aquarists has trained a couple of penguins to walk through a paint tray and then walk on paper so they leave prints. But I can assure you, you cannot potty train penguins.”

Would the mess be worth it? If pet penguins were possible, would they love you the way Bitey, Loudy, Captain, Stinky, Lovey and Nimrod love Mr. Popper?

Don’t bet on it.

“Penguins can be affectionate,” deNapoli says. “But in general, they’re not. They’re kind of ornery.”

-Alexandra Tilsley

Changing Planet