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The Penguin Oil Industry (2019) (thetravellingcheetah.com)
80 points by brudgers 3 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments

The article lacks IMO the most gruesome tool that was used for processing penguins, the penguin press:


I took it on Kerguelen island, that's not a very good picture but you get the idea, a nice engineering detail is that the handle that turns the spiked rollers also has a blade and slices the pressed penguins into smaller slices.

Most of the time though (at least on Kerguelen) penguins were only used as fuel to render seal oil. The penguin oil itself was not used as much because it was less valuable.

Edit here's another picture of the same tool which better shows it maybe:


I think you are mistaken, this just an old iron hay cutter. I have exactly the same thing in my backyard.


I did some googling for the phrases "presse manchots" and "penguin press", combined with "Kerguelen". I couldn't find any reference, anywhere, to this device being a penguin press- though of course the phrase "penguin press" is difficult to google because of the publishing house.

I did find another, very different, device in this French news article which is a peat press in a Paris museum exhibit about Kerguelen, which was mistakenly called a "penguin press". It was actually used to make peat bricks, either as building material or as fuel.

So is there some myth that means that any press-like device on Kerguelen is assumed to have been used on penguins?


That's quite possible, a lot of myths get invented and distorted along the years in such places.

It was "common knowledge" but I'm not that surprised either to hear that it's wrong.

That doesn’t look much different than macerators which are used on male chicks in the egg industry.

I wonder if any of the penguins around today have any idea what that piece of iron is.

If they have any oral history or anything of the sort...

Do you put the whole thing in there live or only the “oily” parts?

As far as I know they were put whole, probably already dead though.

Whether for using as fuel or for rendering their fat, they were not butchered to get only the useful parts and were processed whole instead (which is why the oil was often contaminated with feathers as the article says).

But I wasn't there then of course, and it's not described in "15,000 Miles in a Ketch", one of the best accounts of the era that I know of. Maybe it's better talked about in "Narrative of the Wreck of the Favorite on the Island of Desolation" because the author, John Nunn, was taking part in a more "industrial" seal harvesting operation but I haven't read it yet. In any case I recommend reading at least the first of these books, and the second book is likely interesting as well if one is curious about that era.

This article is unimaginably bleak. Fascinating, morbid, and just plain gruesome. I wonder how long until descendants of ours look back on our existence with similar gut-wrenching sensations of "that's...evil" .

The image of thousands of penguins every day being rendered into oil makes me deeply sad, and I've no idea why it affects me more than the other animals we raise as livestock. It's not just that they're cute - since cows are IMO quite adorable - I cannot put my finger on it.

There's no other reason than the fact that abusing cows is widespread. When everyone does it, it becomes normalised.

The other thing I don't entirely get -- and I am not entirely sure I want to know -- is why penguins. The article highlights that they're a bad "oil" animal. Rendering livestock remains down is not a new idea and is something that would have been done industrially on land at the time of this expedition.

I am a lifelong vegetarian, but I am not sure that my partner would let me get away with going totally vegan. Things like this make me want to: at least plants don't have a central nervous system and the ability to feel pain or fear. They're also far more energy efficient as a food and fuel source.

I feel like I need cheering up after reading this article!

>The other thing I don't entirely get -- and I am not entirely sure I want to know -- is why penguins. The article highlights that they're a bad "oil" animal.

Because they're so easy to catch. Also,the advantage (from a purely economic, not moral or ecological, point of view) of using wild marine animals for this is that you don't have to grow fodder for them or even set aside land for grazing.

Penguin eggs are still eaten in the Falkland Islands, though AFAIK commercial harvesting is illegal. Apparently the white remains translucent even when hard-boiled.

They were already there, and had exterminated the walrus and seal. Who knows what they would have done after running out of penguins.

Why penguins? Because they were there, in large numbers.

And were fatty, as are many sub-Antarctic warm blooded animals.

That's... about it.

You should go vegan. As a lifelong vegetarian, it will be easier than you think, since you're already used to resisting the temptation of foods with animal ingredients. While it's easy to imagine that dairy and egg industries don't require killing animals, they're only economically viable if they do kill animals.

As for cheering up, remember that being vegetarian and vegan does make a large difference at the individual level, not just at a collective level. Every chicken you don't eat is practically a full animal that didn't have to suffer. The animal agriculture industry does react to demand, and on average, you're individual effect is at least equal to the animals you would otherwise consume.

I'd like to argue that while you are right for supermarket meat and animal products, you might try having a look around your village, if you live near/in one. I buy eggs from a guy in town who runs a chicken coop next the village pond, which I am free to observe/feed, and can be certain no chickens are killed in the process of producing those eggs.

I don't want to get into a long debate, but even backyard chickens often have problems.

For one, while the chickens aren't abused while they lay eggs, are they killed when they stop laying eggs regularly, after about 2 years? Chickens live for up to 12 years, but only lay eggs regularly for around 2 to 4. It's possible they are raised for their full lifespan, but it's something to ask about, nonetheless.

Second, roughly for every laying hen purchased, there was a male chick that had no economic value, so it was killed shortly after it was sexed. This is done by hen breeders and is outside the control of those who actually keep the hens, short of not buying the hens in the first place.

I'm sure there have been chickens that lived to 12 years old, but most breeds I know of live 5-8 years. Saying that chickens live for up to 12 years is like saying humans live up to 130 years. Yes, it happens, but the majority die in what, their 70's or 80's?

I'm not sure what you want to do about roosters. I'd be willing to bet most male jungle fowl die young in the wild too due to lack of flock protection and battles for territory and mates. A more humane way to kill them would be better, but the fact that they don't go to some farm somewhere that somehow has space to keep them more or less separated as they generally don't get along with other roosters is kind of just a fact of life. That would be quite the lonely life when you think about it too. The same way breeding stallions are often miserable and starved for equine interaction.

> but most breeds I know of live 5-8 years.

Yeah up to 12 was meant to communicate a rough upper bound, not typical lifespans. Same for the 4 years or regular egg production figure, upper bound. The important part is that hen lifespans are significantly longer than their egg laying years, and all commercial and many individual farmers don't want to spend money on a hen that doesn't lay eggs.

> I'm not sure what you want to do about roosters.

Well, we could not breed them in the first place, since we know they'll need to be immediately killed.

If you had said 8 or 9 years, that would have been a reasonable way to communicate that they live longer than they lay eggs. When you pull out a number like 12 years for an animal that can die of old age at 6, you're either misinformed or exaggerating to make your argument stronger.

I think we're going to be at odds with each other on livestock no matter what because of different views on death. If an animal lives a long, rough, miserable life and dies of old age, that to me is an awful thing to do to an animal. If an animal lives a pleasant but short life and is well treated before it is humanely killed, I see no tragedy in that. My problem with eating meat is that the animal's short life is not a good one in the vast majority of cases. However, I have no problem at all with that life being ended humanely well before they reach old age. Death in itself is not a tragedy. Living in poor conditions or past the point where you can function without pain absolutely is.

I'm going to drop the age point. You're assigning more significance to the specific number than I intended.

> Death in itself is not a tragedy. Living in poor conditions or past the point where you can function without pain absolutely is.

Do you hold the same stance when it come to human life?

Or what about the penguins in the article? They lived typical penguin lives and were presumably killed relativly quickly.

I don't know how replies and edits work on this site. I didn't see most of your post when I replied.

The problem I have with what happened to these penguins is how wasteful it was. Relatively little was produced and everything else was wasted. And using a living creature as fuel to render its compatriots into a low-quality, low-yield product. The fact that they died isn't really the upsetting thing to me here. It's the wasteful nature of the process and the impact on the species and the environment.

I'll happily, very happily in fact, eat bison. They're delicious. I would have no problem killing and butchering one myself. Shooting them en masse and leaving the carcasses to rot as happened early in the history of the US is beyond repulsive to me.

Yes. At least my own for sure.

Well that’s interesting to know. I think it is possible to do backyard chickens for eggs ethically, then. Just get an equal number of male and female chickens (gotta keep the females separate when still laying?) and keep them as pets long after they’re done laying.

Eggs as a delicacy rather than as a major part of the diet.

Roosters are aggressive and territorial. You can sometimes house them together, but it's more difficult than hens and even hens have some pretty nasty pecking order disputes if they aren't raised together. Hens do not have to be kept separate while laying as long as you don't mind fertilized eggs. However, roosters can be dangerously aggressive towards hens in captivity. Over breeding and tearing out of feathers are not unusual and can make a hen's life pretty miserable. In extreme circumstances it is deadly to the hen. They can also be overprotective of their hens and attack their owners mercilessly when it comes time to clean the pen and collect eggs. The backyard chicken keepers I know do not keep roosters unless they're needed to protect the hens from predators.

Oh, interesting that roosters actually have more than a (small) social benefit to the hens in providing protection from predators. I thought it was mostly negative (I was aware of roosters attacking hens, etc). I wonder if more, um, sociable roosters could be bred? Maybe just neuter them so you don’t have fertilized eggs and you reduce their aggression? But I suppose that might reduce their effectiveness as a defense against predators.

All very interesting, thanks!

EDIT: apparently there are more calm rooster breeds: “If you want to choose breeds with a reputation for calm or friendly roosters, Faverolles are my favorite, and Barred Rocks are also very nice. Orpingtons and Cochins and Brahmas also have a reputation as nice, calm birds. Many people love Silkie roosters, too.” https://www.mypetchicken.com/backyard-chickens/chicken-help/...

I thought about this too. The explanation I've reached is that when it comes to livestock, there is a certain amount of.. respect? going into the process. We are raising and exploiting cattle for thousands of years now, and every part of an animal is either directly consumed or used in other ways. Many cultures have elaborate rituals surrounding the slaughter, etc. This, I think, gives the impression of value to us.

But for these penguins, there is no respect (still not sure if this is the best word) to speak of. You just cut them into pieces and boil thousands of them in a steampot, then discard most of it. The oil you get is in small quantities and is not even of high quality. The animal is treated as a thing to be used up, without any value.

I don't know that there is respect for the cow; but the cow is an asset that you've paid for. You don't want to waste the cow, because it cost you money either to buy or raise. The wild penguins cost you nothing, so wasting them has no impact on you. Wild Bison were not used responsibly either.

You are right this definitely reflects some of the feelings I have bouncing around in my head. I agree "respect" isn't the right word but I wouldn't be able to come up with a better word myself.

Hypothesis: You don't actually care about the penguins any more than you care about the cows. However, you've just read something that was intentionally designed to make you feel sad for penguins. If you'd read a piece similarly designed to make you feel bad for cows, you'd have a similar experience. For example, most people have a very negative reaction to slaughterhouse footage and videos of cows being abused by frustrated workers. But in a day or two, you won't care about either.

That's not to say what was done to the penguins and what is done to cows isn't truely horrible. Just that human emotional responses to widespread atrocities are surprisingly fleeting, and those emotional responses don't reliabily indicate moral objection and can't be relied upon to bring change.

Penguins are alien, we think of them as living in the last places untouched by civilisation. They feel like the opposite of a domestic animal.

I know Australia is relatively remote, but it's a bit uncharitable to say we're untouched by civilisation!

I feel it's fairly straightforward - we've been eating animals since caveman times, and it's (or was) a necessity of life. Many cultures have various rituals around killing the animal, making sure it's painless (that's what halal was for it's time), thanking god for the bounty or whatever. Obvious modern context is different, but still.

Oil is 'food' for machines, and it certainly doesn't need to come from live creatures. To steam alive penguins by the thousands to produce measly 400g of oil, while wasting the rest of the carcass - that's barbaric. This whole process has simultaneously Nazi and Matrix vibes to it.

If you look at how sausages are made I think it won't be long until that happens: "We used to kill animals, grind their bodies into a paste and then stuff that paste back into their own bowels."

Sounds pretty gnarly when you put it that way.

Or honestly this can apply to much of the commercial meat industry. It usually isn't pretty.

Industrial meat to be more precise. I've pretty much stopped buying meat from supermarkets, and buy from a local farmer who does his own butching. Funny thing is, it's not even more expensive. No middlemen!

That's kind of hard to do in the US, or at least it was when The Omnivore's Dilemma was written. The author visits a really great farm, but the farmer still had to send out cows and pigs somewhere else to get butchered due to laws about what slaughterhouse facilities need to have.

Totally ok to butcher your own chickens though.

Most animal-derived products sound pretty gnarly when you consider them somewhat dispassionately, even the ones that don't harm the animal by default: cheese is an opaque pregnant cow nipple fluid, curdled into solid chunks with intestinal enzymes, strained and squished, and tossed in a cave for a bit to get the mold and bacteria goin'.

Best served drizzled with bee vomit.

That still sounds good to me, actually! :)

I like the idea of animal products as a delicacy with the animals treated kindly the whole time, as pets.

Generally sausages are made from offcuts. It's not like an entire pig is slaughtered, ground up, and stuffed back into its own intestines.

Industrial chicken production (I'm hesitant to call it farming) isn't any better. It's still common practice to cull male chicks using a grinder.

It's arguably the most humane method; alternative methods include gassing with CO2, smothering them in plastic bags, or breaking their necks. Definitely morbid and gruesome, regardless.

This is a gruesome reminder of the easy-to-overlook practices of industrialised meat and dairy that lie behind many normalised diets and lifestyles today.

Here's a more in depth article about Mr Hatch and his penguins


> Unbelievably, within four years of their arrival, they had near wiped out all the seals

Not really that unbelievable, given that's pretty much how it went for every seal population when they were hunted for skins by Europeans.

I expected something about snake oil products for Linux environments. That was a shock (┬┬﹏┬┬)

While reading this article, I felt goosebumps—what a gruesome thing to do to thousands of penguins. Companies are exploiting these animals, turning them into a money-making scheme.

Utterly gruesome. I was expecting something linux related, not something that would further convince me to be a vegetarian.

Might want to slap a NSFW tag on this title.

I mean it's bad, but just think ATF fluid for cars had whale oil in them up until the 1970's.

>> Penguins have a high fat content, owing to their Subantarctic habitat. However, each penguin produced a measly 400 ml of oil. That’s five penguin lives for just 2 litres! Each digester could hold approximately 3,000-4,000 pounds of oil. However, much of the oil produced was wasted, as penguin oil came with one major drawback – it was often contaminated with feathers, and thus was discarded because it was ‘not pure’.

Complete disrespect of other living creatures.

When you teach an entire civilization that nature is for man’s exploitation, other living creatures have only the value that can be extracted.

If you think this is gruesome, or that it's only other living creatures that get treated this way, I'll point you to King Leopold 2 of Belgium and his treatment of the congo.


Warning: this book will probably give you mental trauma.

Sadly I also realize how cruel humans can be towards each other. It’s amazing what ideology can drive people to do.

Thanks, I’ll check the book out. I’m currently reading the Jakarta Method though, so I’ll need a break with something a bit less bleak.


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