How to Feed Your Penguin

Penguins eat fish. That’s no surprise. At zoos, they’re typically fed a diet of capelin, herring, or other fish, tossed or handed to them out of a bucket. In the wild, penguins dive into the water and swim after their prey — here’s a video of a penguin weaving in and out of a school of fish (or, from the penguin’s perspective, dinner), and depending on where the penguins live and what species they are, they may also eat krill, squid, and basically anything else they can get their beaks on. But what about pet penguins?

They also eat fish. But they get their fish at the fish market.

Or, at least, the one pet penguin we know about did.

Meet LaLa, a king penguin who lived in Japan. He became one of the world’s most famous penguins thanks to an Animal Planet segment, below, from 1996, when he was living with a (human) couple in Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture.

The video (here’s the direct link, in case the above isn’t working) is about two and a half minutes long and worth three times the amount of your time. It may be the only television clip of a penguin wearing a penguin backpack, waddling his way to the fish market for a meal — something LaLa did daily. You’ll see him hop out of his room when his caretaker and owner, Mrs. Nishimoto, slides open the door to the penguin’s penguin-sized, air-conditioned room. You’ll watch the woman at the fish market feed him a full fish, nearly as long as LaLa is tall, and then give LaLa some extra fish to take home — carried in that penguin-shaped backpack. Really, it’s worth watching, especially because you’ll probably never have a pet penguin. They’re not the easiest thing to adopt, and it’s only by accident that LaLa came to live with the Nishimoto family.

LaLa was never intended to be a pet. In or around 1986, according to Modern Notion, Yukio Nishimoto, the father in the family, happened to be admiring the stuffed penguin of a fisherman who was a friend of his. Later that year, the fisherman returned from an outing at sea with a surprise for Mr. Nishimoto — a live penguin. The penguin was accidentally snared in a tuna trawling net, suffering an injured wing and beak. The fisherman didn’t expect the penguin to survive — this was a good way, he surmised, to (eventually) give his friend Nishimoto a stuffed penguin of his very own. But the Nishimoto family ended up nursing the penguin back to health and growing fond of it. Per some sources, the penguin grew dependent on its human hosts and wouldn’t have been easy to reintegrate into the wild, so the Nishimoto family kept the animal as a pet and named him LaLa.

LaLa, at the time of the Animal Planet segment, ate about $800 worth of fish a year, and, per the blog Unscripted Mind, was a great member of the family “except once or twice during mating season when he wanted to mate with [Mr. Nishimoto].” But he probably passed away since the debut of his Animal Planet spot — king penguins typically live to be only thirty years old, and LaLa was already fourteen at the time and was apparently ailing. But don’t worry; Unscripted Mind reports that the Nishimoto family, despite the history behind their acquisition of LaLa, did not plan on stuffing him — they intended to give him a proper burial when the time came.

Bonus fact: LaLa probably isn’t the world’s most famous king penguin. That honor goes to Nils Olav, who lives in the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. The penguin (well, the first penguin of that name; we’re now on the second) was (symbolically) adopted by the Norwegian Royal Guard in 1972, becoming the unit’s official mascot and given the rank of lance corporal. Per Wikipedia, Nils Olav “has been promoted each time the King’s Guard has returned to the zoo,” with Nils Olav II ultimately reaching the honorary rank of Corporal-in-Charge in 2008. And more importantly, Nils Olav II was knighted in that year; Wikipedia notes that Sir Olav “is the first penguin to receive such an honor in the Norwegian Army.”

From the Archives: Penguins of Mine: How war created an accidental penguin sanctuary.

Take the Quiz: Choose the countries with wild penguins.

Related: A penguin backpack. No penguins were harmed in the making of this backpack.