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Pelican ponchos and penguin sweaters make animal rescues fashionable

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

As oil spills at sea threaten bird life, hand-knitted sweaters provide hope. At Phillip Island Nature Parks’ wildlife hospital in Victoria, Australia, Little Blue Penguins caught in oil spills and other contaminants are made to wear custom-made sweaters to prevent them from preening and ingesting oil and to keep them warm until they regain their strength.

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Sweaters are ideal for penguins as they can be slipped over their small flippers relatively easily. Unlike many other seabirds, penguins don’t have long wingspans.

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So could these sweaters help the Brown Pelicans affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico? “Maybe for pelicans, a poncho-style [sweater] could work,” suggests Tristan Brigham of the wildlife hospital, which is providing advice to Gulf wildlife rehabilitators.

After a pattern was figured out by local knitters in 1998, sweaters have become the standard practice for rehabilitating oiled penguins around the world. “Prior to the [sweaters], we used squares of cotton with a hole to stop them from preening. This wasn’t very practical as the birds would still manage to preen and take the oil into their system,” says Margaret Healy, a former rehabilitation officer.

“It is only the robust seabirds like penguins, pelicans, cormorants, gannets, and boobies that benefit from rehabilitation efforts such as putting on sweaters.”

The in-house project has caught the fancy of knitters around the world, who send in penguin sweaters from the United States, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Japan, and China in designs that range from sports team jerseys to tuxedos.

“We have 5,000 [sweaters] in stock for any eventuality,” Mr. Brigham says.