Alaska Life

The improbable history of penguins in Alaska

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

Longtime Alaskans are well familiar with having to explain that there are no penguins in Alaska. Penguins live at the South Pole, not the North Pole. Though penguins are not native to Alaska, a few wayward travelers have made their way north.

As with most things, there is an exception, though a humorous one in this case. The most famous Alaska penguin is Chilly Willy, a cartoon and comic character known for his association with Woody Woodpecker. Fifty Chilly Willy animated shorts were produced from the 1950s into the 1970s, appearing before feature attractions at movie theaters or on the Woody Woodpecker Show.

The oddest aspect of Chilly Willy is that he is canonically from Fairbanks, which reflects how much the creators knew of both Alaska and penguins. In fact, Chilly Willy might well be the most famous individual, fictional or real, from Fairbanks. At his peak, he was popular enough to support a cartoon series, comic books and a litany of branded merchandise. While his heyday happened a few decades ago, he remains a sufficiently viable intellectual property that toys and the occasional cartoon revival manifest every few years. Naturally, there is a Funko Pop representation as well.

Sailors have sporadically spotted real penguins off the American and Canadian western coasts for decades. In 2002, fisherman Guy Demmert pulled in a penguin west of Noyes Island in Southeast Alaska. When the penguin landed on the deck, everyone was shocked, including Demmert, the rest of the crew, and the penguin itself. Demmert said, “He looked really scared at first. He was literally shaking, quivering, maybe wondering what kind of predicament he was in.” The penguin proceeded to calm down before a crewman tossed it back into the water. This penguin, and the other out-of-place sightings, were likely due to ships that essentially adopted penguins from the Antarctic then abandoned them farther north.

Anchorage had a brief experience with penguins in the late 1950s, a debacle made all the more noteworthy for the unique path of the story. The journey began in, of all places, a northern Italian village. In 1958, a young boy there submitted a question to a program on the Italian national radio network: “Why aren’t there penguins at the North Pole?” An Italian journalist, Antonello Marescalchi, decided that rectifying Alaska’s lack of penguins would make for an effective publicity stunt.

First, two penguins were captured in Antarctica. Then, they were flown to Rome, where they were displayed at the zoo for a few days. Marescalchi and the penguins flew to Amsterdam and took a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight to Anchorage.

The KLM flight presented some challenges. Marescalchi told the Anchorage Daily Times, “We couldn’t put them in the baggage compartment. They’d die of cold. We couldn’t put them with the passengers or they (the passengers) would die.” He was referring to the penguins’ strong odor. “So, the penguins flew in a locked restroom, one of four aboard the KLM plane.” During the flight, he recorded the penguins’ grunts, which were later broadcast in Italy.

Marescalchi wanted to drop the penguins off in an Alaska Native village, collect his sound bites and depart, leaving the penguins behind. Rebuffed on this point, he instead came to terms with the Arctic Health Research Center, an Anchorage cold-weather research facility on Post Road. The research center was willing to assume responsibility for the care and safety of the birds.

Then, the Anchorage press decided the penguins needed names. On Nov. 6, 1958, the Alaska Press Club held a christening overseen by president Ron Phares. Marescalchi’s ultimate goal, apart from the publicity and content creation, was for the transplants to create a “new nation” of Alaska penguins. In keeping with that ambition, the Press Club declared the two birds were a couple with the same last name: Egegik and Angela Kinglea. Per the Daily Times coverage, they chose “Egegik because it is Alaskan (as in the Bristol Bay village) and Angela because it is Italian.”

Alaska’s delegate to Congress and future U.S. Sen. Bob Bartlett was at the party. He told the press how happy he was that Italy had remedied Alaska’s lack of penguins.

Sadly, the christening was the peak of the experiment. Marescalchi was not a penguin expert, nor, it seems, were the trappers that obtained the birds in the first place. Both penguins were females. Or, as the Daily Times put it, they “were actually both Angelas.” The Alaska Press Club essentially presided over a same-sex penguin wedding. There would be no “new nation” of Alaska penguins.

Moreover, the research center was woefully underprepared for the care of penguins. They did not know what to feed them and had to adjust their diet after consulting with an expert. To the apparent surprise of the center’s staff, penguins are not accustomed to salmon. A fish was a fish as far as the staff was concerned.

Egegik and Angela’s first Anchorage home was a cage designed for moose. The penguins promptly escaped through a smaller-than-moose but larger-than-penguin-sized hole and began exploring the wilderness at the edge of town. Their next cage had smaller gaps.

As might be surmised from the research center’s lack of preparation, the penguins did not thrive in Anchorage. Despite the foreshadowing, Egegik and Angela’s deaths were abrupt and macabre. After two months in Alaska, they froze to death during a cold snap marked by high winds, not exactly an unusual occurrence here. One of the penguins froze with her mouth open and filled with snow.

The research center’s response was somehow even colder. Rachel Simmett, an administrative officer for the center, told the Daily Times, “I guess they were just a little bit on the stupid side. They had shelter, but they didn’t get into it. It was just exposure, as far as we could tell.” There was no attempt to restart the experiment from Marescalchi, the center, or other Alaskans.

The death of Egegik and Angela demonstrated that maybe penguins do not belong in Anchorage, except when relegated to advertising and entertainment. For example, the Penguin Club on Gambell Street — two successive locations on the same road — was a popular restaurant in town during its 1959-1967 lifespan.

It has been more than 70 years since the penguins’ death. However, if you are ever asked how cold it gets in Anchorage, you can honestly answer that it gets too cold for penguins.

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Key sources:

“Alaskan Weather Fatal to Penguins.” Anchorage Daily Times, January 14, 1959, 9.

Brenner, Betty. “Egegik, Angela Setting Up House.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 13, 1958, 1.

Brenner, Betty. “Zany Penguins Pioneer a New Race.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 8, 1958, 1, 11.

Bryner, Jeanna. “Stowaway Penguin Hops Hemispheres.” NBC News, June 6, 2007, nbcnews.com/id/wbna19072484.

Gay, Joel. “Seiner Pulls Up a Penguin Off Southeast.” Anchorage Daily News, August 1, 2002, A-1, A-10.

“Tell It to Bud.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 16, 1968, 14.

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