Zoo Loves Me, Zoo Loves Me Not: Picky Penguin Gets Her Man Back
It's a common tale: Man meets penguin, penguin meets man, they fall in love. A German zoo has witnessed a bittersweet love affair between two very unequal partners.
"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.
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.
'She Completely Wrote Me Off'
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."
"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."
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