The Legend of the Stolen Penguin

kid looking funny penguin
Miguel Sanz / Getty Images

In an unusual press conference held at Boston's New England Aquarium in late 2005, officials sought to reassure the public that all of the institution's 61 penguins were present and accounted for, notwithstanding a persistent rumors to the effect that a 12-year-old autistic boy had made off with one of the flightless birds in his backpack.

Aquarium spokesman Tony Lacasse, who said in a press conference that he has received hundreds of emails and phone calls about the alleged penguin theft from around the country, labeled the tale a "100 percent certifiable urban legend."

How Did the Boy Supposedly Steal the Penguin?

As the story goes, the boy had gotten lost while visiting the penguin habitat with his mother and seemed agitated when she found him, so she took him home and drew a warm bath to calm him down. Awhile later, when she heard loud splashing noises coming from the bathroom, she went in to check and found her son in the company of a full-grown penguin. He admitted sneaking the bird home in his backpack.

This scenario is not possible, says Lacasse, who notes that the penguin pool is six feet deep and the slippery birds "fly" through the water at astonishing speeds. What's more, penguins are wild animals with beaks as sharp as razors. It would be hard enough for an adult to heft one out of the pool, let alone a 12-year-old child.

Though brand new to the Boston Aquarium, the story is at least a decade old and appears to have originated in the Republic of Ireland. 

It has been theorized, probably correctly, that the sudden resurgence of the urban legend stateside was inspired by the November 2005 release of the popular documentary March of the Penguins on DVD.

2006 Update

In November 2006, the story erupted again in Boston and St. Louis, apparently inspired by the release of Happy Feet, an animated film featuring singing and dancing penguins.