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The Legend of the Stolen Penguin

In an unusual press conference held at Boston's New England Aquarium in late 2005, officials sought to reassure the public that all of the institution's 61 penguins were present and accounted for, notwithstanding a persistent rumors to the effect that a 12-year-old autistic boy had made off with one of the flightless birds in his backpack.

Aquarium spokesman Tony Lacasse, who said in a press conference that he has received hundreds of emails and phone calls about the alleged penguin theft from around the country, labeled the tale a "100 percent certifiable urban legend."

As the story goes, the boy had gotten lost while visiting the penguin habitat with his mother and seemed quite agitated when she found him, so she took him home and drew a warm bath to calm him down. Awhile later, when she heard loud splashing noises coming from the bathroom, she went in to check and found her son in the company of a full-grown penguin.  He admitted sneaking the bird home in his backpack.

Stolen penguin tale is at least a decade old

Not possible, says Lacasse, who notes that the penguin pool is six feet deep and the slippery birds "fly" through the water at astonishing speeds. What's more, penguins are wild animals with beaks as sharp as razors. It would be hard enough for an adult to heft one out of the pool, let alone a 12-year-old child.

Though brand new to the Boston Aquarium, the story is at least a decade old and appears to have originated in the Republic of Ireland.  A typical variant, circulating on the Internet since 2003, goes like this:

A friend's family had spent the day at Dublin Zoo, a very successful day right up until the end of the picnic lunch when they realised their six-year-old son was missing. Along, it should be noted, with his lunchbox and rucksack. Much frantic searching eventually revealed the youngster, dirty and disheveled but otherwise apparently okay, round the back of the penguin enclosure. The errant son was in big trouble and the day out ended there. He said nothing all the way home, sitting apparently full of remorse, in the very back of the people carrier, curled up with his coat and rucksack. When they arrived home he ran straight upstairs for a bath without any bidding at all. He clearly knew he was in very big trouble.

He stayed in the bathroom for over an hour before his mother decided his verbal assurances were not enough. She opened the door to the sight of her beloved son sharing his bath with a small but perfectly formed and very, very real penguin.

Yep, her son had kidnapped a baby penguin and smuggled it back home in his rucksack. The zoo, it has to be said, were not amused and called the police. However, after much argument and a character reference from the boy's form teacher no charges were pressed. But the family were warned never to return to the zoo.

It has been theorized, probably correctly, that the sudden resurgence of the urban legend stateside was inspired by the November 2005 release of the popular documentary March of the Penguins on DVD.

2006 Update:

In November 2006, the story erupted again in Boston and St. Louis, apparently inspired by the release of Happy Feet, an animated film featuring singing and dancing penguins.

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