Never mind that penguins are incredibly cute. Or that "Happy Feet" is the best-selling DVD of the last year. Or that "March of the Penguins" won an Academy Award for best documentary of 2005.
Forget all of that. An environmental group called the Center for Biological Diversity wants to use penguins to make a point.
"If we can save the penguins, then perhaps we've chosen a path that will save ourselves as well," says Melissa Waage, the group's legislative director in Washington.
The group has petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect 12 penguin species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act — an unusual but not unprecedented step for animals that do not even live naturally in the United States.
After some prodding and the threat of a lawsuit, the government has agreed to review the status of 10 of those species. That would be a first step toward getting them listed as threatened or endangered.
The Interior Department says it would take more than a year, and many, many more procedural hurdles, before any penguins get official protection. "Scientists have to rule there is 'substantial information' that they are in danger," said Ken Burton at the Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington.
But independent scientists report many species of penguin are dwindling in number. While the causes include pollution and overfishing, the activists want to use penguins to help make a larger point, saying the birds are, at least in part, victims of global climate change.
"Penguins are both a symbol and a casualty of a much wider problem that we have with global warming," says Waage, "and that we really must address immediately."
"Symbol" is the operative word there. Protection under the Endangered Species Act would prevent people from importing penguins or their body parts without permission — something that doesn't much happen anyhow.
Since the late 1990s, the Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned Washington to protect other species, ranging from Arctic seabirds to polar bears to tropical coral reefs. Their aim, they say, is to show people that climate warming is not some problem for the distant future, but that it's having effects today.
And it's no accident, they admit, that they've picked animals that every preschooler will recognize — and nag their parents to protect.
At New York's Central Park Zoo, Rob Gramzay and his staff were feeding penguins this afternoon, while little kids pressed their noses to the window.
"The penguins are among the most popular animals next to the polar bears and the sea lions," says Gramzay.
"Penguins are cute and fuzzy, and people care about them," says Kassie Siegel, who has led the polar bear effort for the center. "And if that helps us get the message out, so much the better."