John Dowie: Help! Someone's p-p-p-pinched my penguin

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The Independent Online

A man in Sheerness has had his penguin nicked. Honestly. I'm not making this up. I read it in the paper, so it must be true. Only a tiny paragraph in one of the Sundays, but it leapt off the page and hit me, smack, between the eyes. Apparently, on his way to the vet, the man "stopped to use a cash machine... on his return the bird was gone. It was accustomed to a diet of water, sardines and cat food."

A man in Sheerness has had his penguin nicked. Honestly. I'm not making this up. I read it in the paper, so it must be true. Only a tiny paragraph in one of the Sundays, but it leapt off the page and hit me, smack, between the eyes. Apparently, on his way to the vet, the man "stopped to use a cash machine... on his return the bird was gone. It was accustomed to a diet of water, sardines and cat food."

Strange how, in the middle of life, fate can hit us with unexpected curves. One minute, you're a happy penguin-owner, driving along with your penguin in the baby-seat beside you: "Mr Vet will soon sort out this moulting problem. Then back home for sardines on toast, what do you say, little feller?" The next minute - tragedy! If only you hadn't stopped! If only you hadn't gone to the cash machine! If only vets weren't so bloody expensive. But you did, and now - no penguin, no note, no nothing. Not even a hasty message chiselled by a beak on the dashboard: "I'm off." Not even a ransom demand: "We have the bird. Wait by the phone."

Picture the scene: having been informed by a smirking desk sergeant that there "isn't much we can do, but we'll keep an eye open", the poor ex-penguinist returns home, opens the front door, and what's the first thing he sees? That little penguin nest he built by the fridge, with the black-and-white blanket, the matching cushion, the poster of Pingu; once the scene of happy penguin-contentment, now bleak and empty and barren. Poor penguin-owner breaks down. There must be something he can do, but what?

My intention is to get down to Sheerness as quickly as possible. I need to see just how many trees have crudely done, hand-lettered notices pinned to their bark. "Have you seen this penguin? Answers to the name of Fluffy. Dearly loved by all the family. Oh, all right then. Just me."

What kind of man keeps a penguin as a pet, anyway? And what kind of penguin was it? Not the emperor penguin, I'm thinking, which can reach up to 48 inches in height. You aren't going to pass unnoticed, walking a four-foot penguin in the parks of Sheerness on a Sunday morning. Any penguin-snatching gangs in the area would be alerted almost immediately. I suspect it was a somewhat more discreet penguin. The kind you can pick up and hide beneath your jacket when the Penguin Gang is on the prowl. "Is that a penguin under your coat, or are you just pleased to see me?"

I don't know much about penguins, but I do know this: they are gregarious creatures. They get together in their thousands. Your basic penguin is not happy on its own. What your basic penguin likes to do is get together with thousands of other penguins and moan about how rotten it is to be flightless. They do not like the solitary life, cooped up in a Sheerness living-room, no matter how much water, sardines and cat-food you give them.

And here, I think, the Mystery of the Disappearing Penguin is solved. You can give a penguin water, you can give a penguin sardines, but when it comes to cat-food, that particular penguin is off. A self-respecting penguin has to draw the line somewhere. If the monotonous routine had been broken once or twice - with the occasional oyster, perhaps; with some chilled white wine - things might have been different. But when you force moggy-food down its beak, you can kiss your penguin goodbye.

I see a motorway. Dawn. Cunningly disguised in child's coat, scarf and bowler hat, the penguin sticks out a hopeful wing. A lorry pulls up. "Arctic Circle?" croaks the penguin, in carefully rehearsed approximation of human speech. "Sure thing. Hop in." Lorry roars off. Forget Chicken Run. This is the real thing.

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