Love is Lost and Found Again Between a Picky Penguin and Her Devoted Zookeeper
“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.
Thirteen years ago, the African penguin Sandy arrived in Münster’s zoo. She ignored all the other penguins and only paid attention to her keeper, Peter Vollbracht. “I didn’t choose her,” says Vollbracht. “She chose me. I was just her big penguin.”
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.
During the filming of a movie with Sandy in 2006, Vollbracht got sick and had to stay home from work for six weeks. But when he finally returned to the zoo, Sandy had found someone else. “If their partner is gone for a few weeks,” Vollbracht says of these primarily monogamous birds, “they go back out on a partner hunt.” “After 10 years of having her on my arm,” Vollbracht says with a wistful sigh, “she’d completely written me off.” Sandy was now with Tom, a much younger penguin. “At the beginning,” Vollbracht says, “it was weird. But, when all’s said and done, it was better for her to lead a normal penguin life.” And that’s exactly what she did. In 2008, after a few mating seasons of near misses, Tom and Sandy eventually started a family of their own with two chicks. But this September, Tom died of a bacterial infection. Since raising two chicks was “too much for her to handle on her own,” they were placed in a foster nest. And Sandy was single again.
“After Tom died,” Vollbracht says, “I came back to work from vacation, and it was like she’d flipped a switch. She was looking for someone, and I was there.”
Now Sandy and Vollbracht are back together again and pleasing the crowds with their daily shows of affection. For Vollbracht, who has a wife and two children of his own to worry about, it’s a bittersweet reunion. “It’s nice for the zoo and to be followed around again,” he says, “but I can’t stay her partner forever.” But finding her someone else might not be so easy, either. “We can’t find her a partner,” Vollbracht says. “She chooses, and it’s her decision or nothing.”