A South American Magellanic penguin has been making an annual trip of around 5,000 miles to visit the 71-year-old Brazilian man who saved his life four years ago, according to multiple outlets.
Joao Pereira de Souza, a retired bricklayer living in a village outside of Rio de Janeiro, first discovered the bird sickened and covered with oil on a nearby beach. Mr. de Souza spent a week cleaning the penguin and nursing it back to health with a steady diet of small fish.
But when it came time for de Souza’s new friend to return home, it opted to stick around for a while longer instead. Once the bird had recovered sufficiently, de Souza took him to the water in a bid to send him back home.
“He took a drink of water and then came back onto the beach,” de Souza told The Wall Street Journal. “So I gave him three more sardines and that was it. He never left me again.”
The penguin finally made the trip down south after a lengthy stint with de Souza.
“He stayed with me for 11 months and then, just after he changed his coat with new feathers, he disappeared,” de Souza said more recently.
It’s believed the penguin returned to the southern tip of South America near the coasts of Argentina and Chile. Just months after his departure, however, the bird returned to a beach near de Souza, saw him and followed him home.
And the pattern has repeated itself ever since.
“Everyone said he wouldn’t return, but he has been coming back to visit me for the past four years,” de Souza said. “He arrives in June and leaves to go home in February, and every year he becomes more affectionate as he appears even happier to see me.”
Indeed, the relationship between a widower and his avian friend has become anything but typical.
“I love the penguin like it’s my own child and I believe the penguin loves me,” de Souza explained. “No one else is allowed to touch him. He pecks them if they do. He lays on my lap, lets me give him showers, allows me to feed him sardines and to pick him up.”
The penguin even appears to be somewhat possessive.
“He’s jealous for me,” de Souza said. “He doesn’t let any dog or cat near me, or else he goes after them and pecks.”
By now, there doesn’t seem to be anything capable of getting in between these two.
“I never saw a critter get so attached,” de Souza continued. “You can let him go wherever you want, but he’ll come right back.”
The unusual displays of affection have baffled experts. Biology Professor Joao Paulo Krajewski interviewed de Souza on Globo TV and could only speculate about what accounts for the penguin’s behavior.
“I have never seen anything like this before,” Krajewski admitted. “I think the penguin believes Joao is part of his family and probably a penguin as well. When he sees him he wags his tail like a dog and honks with delight.”
Penguin expert and veterinary nurse Dyan deNapoli was similarly perplexed.
“It’s all theoretical,” she told The Wall Street Journal. “I mean, who knows what goes on in the mind of a lone penguin?”
DeNapoli did note, however, that the bird’s tendency to nibble on de Souza was potentially consistent with courtship behavior.
“It’s possible that he has redirected his natural instinct to mate toward this guy,” deNapoli added.
The bond has become so strong that the penguin ultimately spends about eight months out of every year with his human companion. And de Souza’s neighbors have certainly taken notice.
Community administrator Carlos Eduardo Arantes described the bird as, “the village mascot.”
Others have expressed surprise at the penguin’s habitual return.
“It spends 10, 12, 15 days away and then comes back to the same house,” said local fisherman Mário Castro. “It’s an incredible thing, huh?”
The unlikely pairing is so incredible that it’s received widespread reporting, first appearing in The Wall Street Journal last October and more recently making the rounds in British press. You can also check out a YouTube clip covering the story, courtesy of Wall Street Journal Video.