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2021 is already proving to be a landmark year for Australian film, with Robert Connolly’s The Dry and Glendyn Ivin’s Penguin Bloom taking prime positions at the box office. While I’ve written about The Dry at length, I find myself bothered when it comes to writing about Penguin Bloom.
The narrative is, bluntly, inspiration porn of the highest order. Based on the true story of Sam Bloom (played by a stern-faced Naomi Watts), Penguin Bloom follows her journey through rehab after an accident leaves her with paraplegia. With the support of her husband, Cameron (Andrew Lincoln in a rather forgettable role), and her three kids, Noah, Rueben, and Oli, Sam convalesces in a dimly lit room. That is, until the kids find a baby magpie by itself, threatened by a lizard. Fearing its safety, the kids pick up the magpie and bring it home where they give it the name ‘Penguin’ (because it’s black and white) and raise it as a domesticated bird.
Ivin’s direction is filled with empathy for his human characters, and awe for Penguin. The film is drenched in golden hour shots that fill it with an air of wonder and amazement, amplifying the ‘isn’t this nice’ mindset that Penguin Bloom is aiming for. The film is nothing but well-meaning, but as my mother has always said, the worst thing you can say about someone is that they’re ‘well-meaning’, because gosh, the actions that come from that can do much more harm than intended.
From a singing pig making the Sydney Cricket Ground fawn over its ability to herd sheep, to the massacre of kangaroos telling Gary Bond that he needs to get the heck out of the Yabba quick smart, we’re a country that’s fascinated by our relationship with animals. On the Oddball-end of the spectrum, PenguinBloom operates comfortably within the well-trodden Aussie subgenre of animals inspiring humans. It is, primarily, a film about the cheeky shenanigans that the orphaned magpie gets up to in the Bloom household, but at the same time, it’s about Sam’s recovery process, and her growing understanding of the new life she has to accommodate herself into. The overcoming adversity narrative is the backbone of Penguin Bloom, and Naomi Watts does a fine job of bringing Sam’s journey to life. Eventually, the always welcome Rachel House appears as a kayak trainer who helps get Sam back on the path to living a full life.
What hinders Penguin Bloom the most is that, no matter how organic the relationship is, the two competing narratives of a juvenile magpie becoming ingratiated into the lives of the Bloom family, and Sam’s recovery, are simply not given enough breathing space to move together in unison. As such, Sam’s journey feels routine and over familiar, with the film closing on a statement documenting her grandest achievements as a championship winning kayaker. While we see her take the initial steps back to being an athlete and learning how to paracanoe, this closing statement suggests a much more engaging story than what we’re presented with. At a brisk ninety five minutes long, Penguin Bloom is desperately crying for more runtime to flesh out Sam’s story more.
The other narrative, Penguin’s story, is quite simply the most infuriating and upsetting strain presented here. As with many human and animal stories, the relationship between the Bloom’s and Penguin, as shown here, is completely one-sided, favouring the inspiration that the Bloom’s get from their wild avian friend. Penguin merely exists as a conduit to teach Sam how to be a person again, and does so through all manner of dangerous exploits.
Penguin Bloom actively presents irresponsible and harmful behaviour towards the life of orphaned or injured wildlife, neglecting to inform the audience of aspects the truth in Penguin’s story. As per the Penguin the Magpie website:
We undertook a great deal of research about magpies and were extremely grateful for all the specialist veterinary advice we received, especially in regard to Penguin’s diet. Australian magpies are omnivores, meaning they will eat almost anything, but during their critical growth phase the nestlings consume a lot of insects, far more than we could ever hope to provide, so we had to ensure Penguin consumed an easily digestible diet that was high in lean protein and would contain all the essential nutrients she needed to form strong bones and flight feathers.
In Penguin Bloom, the decision process that the family go through in deciding to keep Penguin is swift and with minimal discussion. Cameron and the kids champion the idea of keeping Penguin, while Sam, showing a level-headed and being the only pragmatic individual in the room, says ‘we should take her to a vet’. In the film, they don’t, instead keeping her inside and raising her by themselves. At one point, the kids try and feed the magpie oysters, which we later see the family collectively erupting in the toilet over the tainted seafood, with Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) remarking that it could have killed her.
The disconnect between the Bloom’s educating themselves and doing the perceived ‘right thing’ by Penguin and the filmic versions of their bond with the bird is repeatedly made apparent throughout the film, time after time. Here, Penguin is seen like a cheeky puppy, getting into mishaps, covered in honey, pulling out kids toys. While that may be true of the Bloom’s experience, it’s often presented to the detriment of the bird itself.
With eight years of vet nurse experience, and having spent a fair chunk of that time tending and caring for injured wildlife, I sat through Penguin Bloom with my hands over my face like it was a horror movie. Near the close of the film, Penguin gets bullied by a group of other magpies, only doing what they know how to do: protect their territory. The antrhopomorphisation of Penguin hinders their natural requirements, so much so that when Penguin ‘disappears’ at the end of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the reality: the same brutal act of bird bullying that occurred, and was stopped, would have happened again, only this time without a family of ever observant people to stop it from taking place. I couldn’t help but think of the life that Penguin might have had if it were transferred to a trained wildlife carer, where it could be incorporated into a flock of other orphaned birds, and then released to operate as a functional unit.
I’m terrified of these kinds of animal films, because of how they’ll influence the audience who walks out of the screening feeling ‘inspired’ by what they’ve just seen. As a vet nurse, I already had to deal with the inherent distrust and scepticism directed towards trained animal care people like myself, and the wildlife carers who often would spend their days and nights dutiful raising, tending, and caring for these animals. The amount of times that I had tended malnourished, underfed, and poorly cared for magpies, lorikeets, galahs, and honeyeaters, being brought in for care, weeks after they should have received attention, would be able to fill a small zoo. This isn’t even considering the plethora of other wildlife that needs specialised care.
One horror story had a well-meaning person bring in the baby magpie that they had been looking after for a month to the hospital. It had not been putting on weight and was consistently lethargic. A basic assessment of the bird showed us that not only did this magpie have throatworm that is easily treated in a vet hospital, but it had a protruding bone sticking out of the underside of its wing. This bone would have been there since the person found the bird. It had turned necrotic and the muscle had effectively disappeared completely. There was no hope for this bird, and euthanasia was the kindest course of action.
I completely understand the fear that the public have when it comes to taking wild animals to a vet or wildlife carers. Especially given stories like that one. That bird would likely have to have been put to sleep if it were brought in at the first instance. A broken wing for a bird is a difficult thing to heal, and often they simply do not heal at all, making release an impossibility, and domestication a difficult prospect. Folks do not want to deliver an animal to the vet only to have it be put to sleep. They want to feel like they’re helping, not hindering. But the reality is, for many of the injured wildlife that is handed in to wildlife carers and vets, euthanasia may be the most helpful option. This decision is never taken lightly, and the emotional toll on the carer or vet staff is mammoth.
I would have less issues with a film like Penguin Bloom presenting the story it did, if it at least acknowledged the need to seek wildlife carer advice or veterinary support when it comes to support for wildlife. But it doesn’t. There’s no narrative beats that show the Bloom’s seeking veterinary advice, and there’s no coda giving audiences a call to action in what to do when it comes to wildlife care. Instead, the bird flies off, and the Bloom’s have grown as people. This is dishonest, manipulative, and downright harmful to how the Australian public deal with wildlife.
While I understand that the wildlife caring world is a complex one, a mere note would go a long way to allowing audiences to understand how they can help. Because, when it comes down to it, after all that has taken place in Australia with bushfires, vehicle accidents, or the annual breeding season with birds, we all want to help out and care for our wildlife as much as possible. With one billion animals reportedly dying in the 2019/2020 bushfire season, it’s clear that Australian wildlife needs our help more than anything else.
So, let me do for you what Penguin Bloom doesn’t.
First up, each state has different legislation regarding the care and medical attention of wildlife. It’s important to be aware of what the rules and legislation is in your state or territory. Some animals require a permit, or like in Western Australia with the Black Cockatoos, the care and treatment for them needs to be done by an approved and certified veterinarian. See below for more information:
Secondly, if you, or your family, is interested in caring for wildlife, then get in contact with your local wildlife shelter and ask if they have training session days where you can learn first aid. This is one of the most important and vital things that you could do as a citizen for wildlife. Whether it’s an injured bird, or a bushfire afflicted animal, knowing how to care for it when it’s injured, hurt, or abandoned, could mean the difference between life or death for the animal. In the meantime, this discussion has plenty of useful pointers in how to assist injured wildlife.
Thirdly, if you call up a wildlife carer and they say ‘leave the bird on the ground’, then: leave the bird on the ground.
While there is more complexity to that outwardly unhelpful advice, there are things you can do to ensure that the bird is kept safe and sound. You can build a makeshift nest for the bird, you can move it out of harms way, or additionally remove the harm if possible. For magpies specifically, this helpful guide shows what to expect when you find a juvenile magpie by themselves. If you fear there are dogs or cats around that may get to the bird, then creating a shelter or putting the bird in a safe place where they cannot get to them is best.
The key thing to keep in your mind when you see a juvenile bird with no parents around, is that by removing that bird or taking it away from its habitat, you may actively be hindering the bird more by disrupting the natural relationship it has with its parents. We’ve read countless stories about well-meaning people taking juvenile wildlife away from their natural habitat, only to have that juvenile be rejected by its family, or worse, need to be euthanised due to it becoming dependent on humans and unable to be released in the wild.
This advice is not given to people because wildlife carers don’t care about the animal. Quite the opposite: they care deeply about the animal and they know what is best for them. If you do not receive the advice you feel you should be getting from a wildlife carer – then reach out to another one. Keep in mind, wildlife carers are time poor, stressed, and managing multiple orphaned animals at once. Their blunt response of ‘leave it where it is’ may seem like the wrong advice to you, but it is often the correct advice for the bird you have discovered.
If you feel the bird is injured, then take it to a suitable vet or carer. For how best to transfer an injured wild animal, this guide will assist.
Seeing an animal in need, and knowing that wildlife carers are exhausted, means that the eagerness to save the animal helps both the animal, and makes it one less animal for carers to look after. If it turns into a charming little creature to fill your house with that’ll delight you with antics, then isn’t that a joyful bonus to your help? Well, no, not entirely. That bird might get the wrong diet or care and your best intentions might just hamper the progress and life of that animal.
Hopefully these pointers will help out if you need to provide assistance to injured or abandoned wildlife. While each situation is different from another, these basic tips will help out in a time of need.
Behind the social-media fame that made Penguin the Magpie an online celebrity, there’s a necessary awareness of ethical wildlife care and support in Australia. That message is missing from Penguin Bloom, a well-meaning life-lesson narrative wrapped up in ableist rhetoric and a sappy sheen.
While I’m glad that Australian films are doing well at the box office, I just wish it wasn’t this kind of misguided drivel that’s doing it.
Director: Glendyn Ivin
Cast: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Griffin Murray-Johnston
Writers: Shaun Grant, Harry Cripps, (based on the book by Cameron Bloom, Bradley Trevor Grieve, with additional writing by Samantha Strauss)
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