Picky Penguin Has Love Affair with Zookeeper

Love is lost and found again between a picky penguin and her devoted zookeeper.

ByABC News
November 5, 2009, 5:13 AM

Nov. 5, 2009 — -- "Old love never dies," the country song goes, "it just fades away." Well, maybe so, but occasionally it comes back, too. At least that's the case when it comes to an animal keeper in the southern German city of Münster and a penguin named Sandy.

This roller-coaster story of love started 13 years ago, when a one-year-old African penguin was transferred from a zoo in Nuremberg to the Allwetterzoo Münster. But rather than integrating herself into the penguin population, Sandy set her sights on her keeper. "At the beginning," Peter Vollbracht, 47, told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "we found it very funny. Normally you have to wear thick gloves to handle these penguins because they have really sharp beaks and can give you a good whack with their wings. But Sandy" -- as Vollbracht named her -- "would just sit on my boot or arm and ask to be petted."

Still, at a certain point, friendliness turned a bit into obsession. "There was nothing we could do about it," Vollbracht says. "I didn't choose her; she chose me. When I would get to work in the morning, she would be there waiting for me and call out to me. And when we did our daily penguin march for exercise, she would always jump to the front of the line to be next to me."

With Vollbracht around, Sandy completely ignored the zoo's other 80-plus penguins. "She didn't care about anyone else," Vollbracht says. "I was just her big penguin."

The atypical relationship was good for the zoo. Although most penguins shun human contact, Sandy let Vollbracht and others pet her. In addition to visiting schools, handicapped children and retirement homes, Sandy and Vollbracht made the rounds of Germany's leading talk and late-night entertainment shows. Sandy also landed a couple of parts in German films on her way to joining the top-tier of beloved animals -- like Berlin's celebrity polar bear, Knut -- in this animal-obsessed country.

But then everything changed.