The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco

Natural disasters create a surge of helplessness in those not directly affected. Many people want to do something concrete, something more than a quick donation or a Like on Facebook. Nowadays this desire to help can be harnessed by social media, but it’s easy to waste the time and goodwill of volunteers if this isn’t managed well.

On October 5th 2011, the cargo ship Rena ran aground on a reef near Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, a couple of hour’s drive from Auckland, New Zealand. It leaked 350 tonnes of fuel oil, which blanketed nearby beaches and killed or injured dozens of seabirds and seals, among them Blue Penguins (Eudyptula minor), the most common penguin species around New Zealand coasts. Thousands of volunteers went to Tauranga to help shovel oil-soaked sand, and veterinary specialists set up a facility for cleaning oil-soaked birds. The Rena spill was and is a national tragedy, and all around the country people wanted to know what they could do to help.

Back in 2000 a similar oil spill near Phillip Island, Australia, left many Blue Penguins oil-covered, and a bird rescue team through trial and error developed a little knitted sweater (or jumper, in Australian) that would keep penguins warm and stop them from preening oily feathers. The Tasmanian Conservation Trust organised a knitting drive, hoping volunteers could supply them with 100 or so. As often happens with unmanaged email requests, it was wildly over-successful: they ended up with 15,000. The Trust page now politely requests people stop sending them jumpers; they’re supposedly filling a small room somewhere waiting for a gigantic oil spill, but are actually being sold at the Phillip Island gift shop, adorning toy penguins.

(FUN FACT FOR JOURNALISTS: Tauranga is in New Zealand, Phillip Island is in Australia. NZ and Australia are different countries, 1300 miles apart—the same as the distance from Canada to Mexico. You would think there’d be no need to point this out, but…)

© saskyumchar on Ravelry

Six days after the Rena grounded, in a discussion forum on the knitting website Ravelry, one keen knitter posted the Australian penguin sweater pattern, and said a friend’s daughter was in contact with the bird rescue crew, and there were Blue Penguins in need of sweaters. A Napier wool shop, Skeinz, volunteered to receive completed sweaters and send them on to Tauranga. Having seen what happened in Australia, I created a Ravelry project page that anyone knitting could link to, partly to make a gallery of completed sweaters, but mostly so there was a single place that allowed control over the message and would let me notify knitters when enough had been received.

My concern from the start was that we had no direct link to actual rescue workers: our only contact was the coordinator’s friend’s daughter, who was “in touch with” the veterinarians (note the similarity to that classic “friend-of-a-friend” setup we see in urban legends), and all communication was by two-stage mail, channeled through Skeinz in Napier. The coordinator at Skeinz then went on holiday, and the fun began.

First the pattern was linked to by multiple different forums in Ravelry, and knitters from all over the world got busy. Then it started being emailed to knitters not on the network. Most critically, the call to action, full pattern, and mailing address were posted in the Skeinz online newsletter, where anyone could link to it, up to October 25th. And link to it they did: knitting blogs, conservation websites, the popular craft site Etsy, the Huffington Post, and the world’s most-read blog, BoingBoing.

© beforesunrise on Ravelry

Hundreds of sweaters started flooding in, far outnumbering the rescued penguins. Skeinz was contacted by local and international media wanting pictures of cute penguins in sweaters. The organiser’s holiday coincided with a long weekend, so there was another delay in shutting down the campaign. But by now the horse had bolted, as the online newsletter content remained unchanged and was easy enough to copy and paste into emails; the penguin sweaters had gone viral.

And by now it turned out that none—not one—of the sweaters was actually used. The rescued penguins were being kept in warm water and recovering under heat lamps, much less stressful for wild birds than dressing them in a cute knitted sweater. Nobody seems to have asked the vets and rescue workers if they in fact needed penguin sweaters, and those interviewed seemed a bit surprised by the international knitting effort.

The end result is that “hundreds, possibly thousands” of unneeded sweaters will continue arriving at Skeinz. The organiser claimed, “the sweaters were a way for people to help, even if they weren’t going to be used.” Apparently the sweaters will be sent to a conservation group in Australia, though with crates of penguin jumpers already in storage it’s hard to see when they’ll ever be needed; some might be sold for unspecified fund-raising purposes. It all seems like rather a poor use of thousands of hours of volunteer effort: the knitters would have made more of a difference supplying gloves and hats for the volunteer clean-up crew, or donating a few dollars to Greenpeace, or writing to their MP with their views on maritime safety or offshore oil drilling. Knitters didn’t sign up to make sweaters for sale; they made them for penguins.

© jenromero on Ravelry

So history repeats itself in the Great Penguin Sweater Call To Arms, and the result is once again squandered effort and goodwill. This is an example of how not to use social media to rally the troops; how should a similar effort be organised in the future? Enlisting the crafting skills of volunteers really can work: see for example the knitting drives of WWII, the Knitted Periodic Table project, or the campaign to knit a cosy for the shipping containers of Christchurch. Here’s what I’d do, if we had a chance to rerun the project:

  1. Set up a dedicated website: say, using a WordPress blog (these can be updated from any computer) or even a Facebook fan page. Registering a domain name would help its credibility and make for more concise links.
  2. Make sure all URLs in tweets, emails, and forum postings point to that top-level domain name (e.g. www.volunteerproject.org), not an individual page with a knitting pattern (www.volunteerproject.org/whattoknit.html).
  3. Get the visible support of the group being helped: say, a short message and photo from them on the home page. In this case, perhaps show a sweater actually being worn by an actual rescued Tauranga penguin. Most importantly, the group being helped should also have editing privileges for the site, so they can correct mistakes and add a news release as soon as any target is reached.
  4. Date-stamp everything, especially any page that might be linked to or emailed out of context. Add day-to-day updates on targets: the number of rescued birds, how many sweaters received, and so on, so volunteers can judge whether their effort is still needed.
  5. Keep any pattern or instructions from being emailed. Make the instructional text hard to copy and paste by embedding pictures and CSS styles, so it’s more convenient for a supporter to just pass on the page URL (write out the URL on the page itself and tell them to only mail this). Block search engine spiders so the pattern won’t be indexed (and cached) by Google, only the home page. The goal is to have the pattern existing in just one place, on that web page.
  6. Put the mailing instructions on a different page from the pattern, preferably the main page. Make sure this has a press kit link and instructions for media, in case the whole thing goes viral.
  7. And when the target is reached, put a big THANK YOU on the home page, post a gallery of the finished project (say, happy penguins in their sweaters), and… take the pattern down.

UPDATE, 7 March 2014: The Phillip Island Penguin Foundation have changed their tune, and put out a new call for more sweaters, with predictably huge amounts of media coverage. They strongly imply in their advertising that this will save oil-soaked penguins (although there’s been no oil spill since 2001). If you read the fine print, you find out the sweaters will actually be sold in the gift shop. I guess “knit sweaters for us to sell in our gift shop” is not the sort of thing that goes viral.

UPDATED UPDATE, 8 March 2014: The Penguin Foundation have added a paragraph (in a hurry, I presume, given it’s in a different font, with typos) to clarify they don’t need jumpers for actual penguins, and hey, isn’t this a great opportunity to work on your knitting skills! But all the media outlets and Facebook shares and retweets still seem convinced the jumpers are for saving oily penguins.

43 thoughts on “The Great Penguin Sweater Fiasco

  1. Amy Hewgill

    yes, Agreed. Along with #3 KNOW someone on the team! It’s frustrating that in the end there was no direct connection to the actual team that was handling these birds.

    And what the hell did we see if we didn’t see Taurange penguins on the news? Was that Tasmania pictures?

    I very rarely knit for charity and this is one of the reasons why. It’s just so damn disorganized. ug.

  2. M-H

    Say it loud, say it strong! The last ‘penguin sweater’ callout was a complete fiasco, as you suggest, and it went on for years. Two years later, people in the US were knitting sweaters for penguins, because they believed the poor little birds were dying of cold. Yes, penguins were dying of cold, in Melbourne, in a December heat wave.

    Let’s hope they’re never needed again, but if they are, let’s hope people take your advice.

  3. TRM

    idea: 1. For every sweater, buy one stuffed penguin plushie of appropriate size. Purchasing in bulk will save money, and you might get a company willing to part with them at cost for the good cause to come. 2. Place sweater on plush penguin, possibly with numbered tag. 3. Sell penguin with sweater online for cost plus relative profit, all profits going to cleaning up the fouled coastline.

  4. Swanknitter

    I was worried when I saw the story on TV about knitting for the penguins because I too remembered the Aussie overkill project. But the people on TV actually said the volunteers wanted the jumpers and were using them and showed footage of the penguins in jumpers. Obviously this was misinformation and they must have used stock footage. Another reason I rarely knit for charity.

  5. lena e

    The sweater frenzie has now reached the northern polar circle. Swedish national broadcasting showed the old stock photo of the pingu in a cozy and told about a group of women somewhere in Sweden knitting for all they were worth. So rest assured, the sweater flood is far from over.

    Do you think we can create a revival of the leg-warmer fashiom?

    Or use them as iPad protective gear?

    Think the idea to stuff stuffed pingues and sell them for charity is the best one. would also employ a couple of people to do the double stuffing.

  6. Giorgia

    I just recently found out the truth behind this story, which had been rubbing me the wrong way for months. It was a relief to find out that I wasn’t simply being overly cynical to think that stuffing traumatized wild animals into individual sweaters (wing holes and all) was an impractical idea. I made a comic on the story, which I linked back to this article and others. Also, I thought your thoughts on how to better organize future efforts of this nature were very clever (and, more importantly, useful).

    http://whileiwasdying.thecomicseries.com/comics/pl/194953

  7. Tracy Mackprang

    Why not just take the gift, sell the sweaters (with or without the stuffed animal) and make some money for your cause? I would totally buy one! Maybe it will fit my Chihuahua! Why complain? This is a great opportunity.

  8. Mike

    If you read the fine print from the Phillip Island penguin foundation, you’ll see that the pullovers are being put on toy penguins, sold in the shop to raise money. I doubt, with their backlog, they need any for actual oil-covered penguins.

  9. JC

    I’m all for helping wildlife but what is it with people…a little penquin is coated with oil and people are scrambling to knit their fingers to the nub. Why is the same urgency not felt to knit furiously to keep a human being warm? Or to knit a cuddly doll or animal to give to a child? I wish I was clever enough to think of a scenario that would go viral so that the poor could be heard saying “no, please, you’re so kind but we have enough!”

  10. Lisa

    It’s 5:30am and the channel 7 ABC News in the Los Angeles is running a news item about a plea for penguin sweaters and how they are badly needed. Penguin sweaters are a seriously excellent troll at this point. And in TIME Magazine: http://time.com/13575/knit-for-oil-damaged-penguins/

    “And if your masterpiece arrives at a time when the Penguin Foundation is overstocked, the organization will use them in educational programs and sell them in fundraisers.”

  11. Jutti

    The best thing is to donate money through a reliable organization. Do check out the organization to make sure your $$$ will reach those in need.

  12. KDC

    Ummmm, anyone else think that the sweaters could have been given to a group that does hats for military and merchantmen, hats for the homeless, all with the sweaters being unraveled into yarn.

    Agree, it’s all ridonk

  13. Arna Caplan

    I agree with JC. Check out knitting4peace.org. We fill identified needs locally and around the world. All deliveries are documented with pictures and narratives and most items are hand delivered. I have been a delivery agent 4 times and the joy of the recipients has so enriched my life.

  14. Carol

    How sad, because all of that effort might have gone into little knitted sweaters for little human babies, given to bundles of joy, local humanitarian centers or local hospitals & OB wards. Unlike the penguins, there really are thousands & thousands of little ones born every day that have nothing more than a hospital receiving blanket to go home in. Some even have to go home in a newspaper. Knitting or crocheting for charity doesn’t have to be a blind event. You can donate to your local shelters, hospitals, & churches. I guarantee it will be put to better use!

  15. Kerryn

    I guess knitted hats for the homeless doesn’t have the same cute factor.

  16. SueMaryT

    I guess the lesson to be learned here is to check ALL requests with the original organisation. There are so many charities and groups out there desperate for yarn/wool/knitted items that it is not too hard to find one or two to patronize. Just find your few, local or international, and go with them. I do our local wildlife centre and our local Red Cross. I know where the things are sent and have built up a rapport with the organisers which gives me access to what is needed and when.

  17. Julie Thomas

    A HEAT-STRESSED PENGUIN GETTING HIS FIRST LIFE-SAVING FLUIDS IN THE RESCUE CENTRE doesn’t care if its costs are paid by selling tacky plush penguins in jumpers. Would you? Do your homework guys. The Penguin Parade is self-funded. How much money does it take to rehabilitate and release all the penguins that come in BETWEEN oil spills, with human- induced fish hooks, habitat loss issues, dog and (introduced) fox injuries etc etc.. THAT’s why the surplus (ONLY the surplus) jumpers are sold. Read the tag. Meanwhile, keeping the knitting going increases awareness of wildlife problems. Give them a break. If you are going to whinge, don’t do it in ignorance.

  18. Christian Bell

    The Tasmanian Conservation Trust (TCT) started this as a project shortly after the vessel Iron Baron ran aground and spilled oil at the entrance of the Tamar RIver in Tasmania in 1995. A small number of these jumpers had been used in the response. We started the project thinking that a few hundred or even a thousand might be useful if stock piled for another incident. The TCT did some publicity but the story soon became a favourite of the internet and kept on being republished, not that we were at all spruiking it, when the figure hit about 5000 we told anybody who actually contacted us that we did not require anymore but they still kept coming in the post. By 2005 I think the TCT had got as many as 20, 000, by that stage many had been distributed to Victora and New Zealand to be held as part of their state oil spill response plans as the figure was way beyond what could be used in Tasmania.

  19. Kerry

    I’ve been thinking about this:

    Let’s say you need 500 turtleneck sweaters for turtles (or whatever). The thing to DO is to have a SIGN-UP page where a knitter puts in her (I’m going to roll with this pronoun for ease) information, saying she’s dedicated to knitting a turtleneck turtle sweater. Once she’s done that, it gives her the address, a little spiel about knitting and mailing it in a timely manner and how to contact you if she can’t complete her sweater, and everything she needs to knit it to your specifications. THAT way, when you hit a bit more than your goal (say, 650 sign-ups), you can just AUTOMATICALLY STOP the donations! Put a thing on the sign-up page that says, “Hey, we hit our goal! If you want to be contacted the next time we have a call-to-arms, please enter your info here, but know that at this time we have all the knitting help we need.”

    Part of my reasoning is… if you need 500 sweaters but on the each day 1000 people see the info and want to knit sweaters, then by the time you GET the 500 you need in the mail and tell everyone you don’t need more, there’ll be maybe 10,000 sweaters coming your way!

  20. Joy Dove

    I would like to get this sorted as I know a lot of people have started knitting.

  21. Lesley Dewar

    Since if was my tweet that started this thread, I would like to say my original post on my personal profile included the photo, a link to the Fairy Penguin website (yes, we want jumpers) and the “whole I was dying” comic strip (no they are not wanted). Not too sure about the @nanastories tweet, but it certainly has stirred up a lot of discussion. I did try to offer both sides of the knitting story.

  22. Mike

    Just out of interest, the story may have been spread by Twitter, but the traffic to this page has been about 10:1 driven by Facebook, and so I suspect was the original sharing.

  23. Mike

    I don’t think in 2005 any had been distributed to NZ; I hadn’t heard of any stocks being available for the 2011 Rena spill (hence the knitting drive), and of course sweaters weren’t being used anyway.

  24. Li

    I knew about Penguin “not–needed” sweaters. But it does get children knitting and that’s a good thing. A truly needy group that appreciates sweaters are rescue greyhounds. They have little body hair or fat. Because greyhounds have such a unique body shape, it is hard to buy an off-the-rack sweater cover up for them. Pepper, my sons’ greyhounds LOVES her sweater. Its a turtle neck that can be made into a hoody. It’s adorable. Pepper growls if you try to take is off of her in the winter. Here’s a link to the pattern http://www.ravelry.com/patterns/library/side-button-greyhound-sweater . So encourage all those Penguin Sweater Knitters to switch to shivering Greyhounds. They actually need them.

  25. Karen Croke

    I am the owner/founder of Knitting for Brisbanes Needy (www.knittingforbrisbanesneedy.com.au)

    I too got the email re the “urgent request” for penguin jumpers and many of my members said they were going to start knitting some straight away. However, as I had been in touch with the foundation in Phillip Island only a couple of months previously, they were very upfront with me, said that they DON’T NEED ANY, as they have so many that they don’t know what to do with them. They also said they now put them onto toy penguins that they sell to raise funds. They were very adamant that they did not need one, let alone thousands!

    As others have said there is heaps of people worldwide who are homeless; “couch surfing”; living in derelict houses etc who would absolutely love to have a warm blanket, beanie, gloves, whatever. This is what we do, knit/crochet/sew blankets, jumpers, gloves, beanies, for all from premature babies to adults. We also make pouches; rugs, etc for animal refuges; wildlife carers etc. We have also helped out areas in the time of natural disasters including floods on 2011 in Queensland; bushfires and even sent (at their request) a heap of premature baby clothes to a hospital in Christchurch New Zealand, after the earthquakes there. Just today my husband and I have spent the day ringing all the organisations that we have helped previously and some new organisations to see what there needs are with winter now coming upon us. It is better to find out from “the horses mouth”, so to speak, what is needed, how much, and where. All of our items are given on the understanding that they are given FREE OF CHARGE to the homeless, needy, less fortunate; cancer patients; etc.

    If anyone wants to help us by knitting, crocheting any items for these purposes we would love to hear from you. We get no funding whatsoever, so donations of good clean wool/material is always welcome.

    In the 8 years we have been operating we have given away over 180,000 items to those in need.

    There is also another Australian organisation, Knit 4 Charities, which does similiar to us, except they nominate a couple of specific charities each month to make items to! They too would appreciate more helpers.

    Both organisations also welcome members overseas too~!!

    So, no more penguin jumpers, but PLEASE think of the people in real need.

    I am so pleased that I stumbled across this blog re the headaches being caused because of the willingness of people to want to try and help the penguins.

    Thanks.

  26. Helen Martin

    You folks seem to be missing the point. It’s about engaging people to care whether oil companies obey the regs and avoid oil spills. Who cares if some penguin sweaters go unused?

  27. Dean Pearce

    There was a story on Sunrise TV in Australia this morning , they mentioned there were 10,000 penguin jumpers in stockpile already. I think that all this effort could maybe be better directed to helping humanity.

  28. Felicity Hayes

    I said something on Sunrise this morning, the 11th March, after having read a comment that the sweaters are actually harmful to the penguins. I got a direct reply from the Penguin people you mentioned above to me in their comments repeating the exact same as is detailed above in the winter, i.e. That the sweaters are not currently needed for the penguins etc. they seem to be repeating themselves. They did ask me if I enjoyed the Sunrise bit on the penguins this morning. I never even had the time to see it. I just ticked their reply and left it at that. I think there are a lot of naive people replying to the Sunrise post today and some others determined to say I was wrong in my opinion. It had told people the jumpers were harmful and directed them to the link above my reply which proved it so. Thanks for filling me in about the history of all this knitting madness. Makes me think what a waste of time it has been. Direct volunteers better in the first place and Sunrise should stay out of many issues it indulges in to get ratings. They just cause more trouble.

  29. Cathy Morrison

    If people want to Knit, and help real people, then knit 25cm squares, sew 28 of them together to make a wrap and donate to ‘Wrap with Love”. these wraps are then sent to refugee camps, or to people who have suffered a natural disaster…and they really do get to these people and make a difference.

  30. Jutti

    Very good point. If people want to knit something that CAN be used they should consider knitting little caps for premature babies. They are used to keep them warm. However before undertaking this project they should contact the hospital they are considering donating them to and 1. Find out if they need them. 2. Find out if there are certain types of yarn they should use.

    As I mentioned before what wildlife rescue groups need most is donations of funds.

  31. Jan Sparks

    I took this up with the company that were running a competition to provide Philip Island with penguin sweaters. There was a requirement that the knitters use home brand yarns, that actually happen to be produced in china. At the very least, one would expect people to knit Australian yarn! It’s a great feel good marketing ploy for the franchise running it, a great provider of sale-able goods for the penguin gift shop, and a big time waster for the kind hearted people doing the knitting. Donate the cost of your yarn and your time!

  32. Christina

    I am so confused and feel like I am being duped. I think it might be best just to stick with my knitting of children’s chemo caps & adult prayer shawls

  33. Judith

    There is such a need for our knitting in our own neighborhoods. Children, homeless, working poor, veterans, preemies. I knit a lot for charity and I keep it close to home. Look around you.

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