About Rainbows You Can’t See

I had a great conversation with a mother and daughter outside the Penguin Encounter during a Magellanic feeding. The mother, maybe fifty-something, had lavender-died hair, and the daughter had tattoos of birds flying up past her collarbone and onto her neck. I invited them back to see the penguins at the PE because they were such good convo, and because they talked about having volunteered at the Portland Aquarium in younger years. I love zoo fans, and fans of animals who exhibit their love of winged and other things in permanence on their person.
Later, I received a phone call from the PE gift shop.
“Hello–um–there’s a man here whose daughter is doing a project on penguins. Can someone come see them and answer some questions?”
“I’ll be right out.”
I dig on this stuff.
“Hello. I’m Thom.”
“Dave. I’m a science teacher up in Temecula. Can you answer some questions for my daughter? She’s doing a project. This is her second year in a row talking about penguins.”
“I’m your guy.”
I meet Christina, who is six and has a shirt exclaiming ‘Big Sister.’ ‘Little Sister’ had a likewise shirt and was holding Science Dave’s hand.
“Hello, Christina. Nice to meet you.” (Science Dave walks away with ‘Little Sis’, and I’m left with Mom and Christina).
Christina is shy, and I used to be, too.
“I hear you’re doing a project, Christina? What about?”
“Emper penguins.”
“You came to the right place. Only three zoos have them, and you’d have to fly in a plane to see the all the others. What’re your questions?”
And I sat down on the bench between Christina and her mother, and although Christina made up the questions, Mom had to whisper to her daughter what she wanted to ask.
SMART questions. Kids are incredible.
“Why, Thom, do Emperors have yellow on them?”
I look to Mom briefly.
“How old are you again, Christina?”
“Do you know the rainbow, Christina?”
And she recites the cascading colors, red through to violet.
“Guess what–penguins don’t see very well the top of the rainbow, but they see things we don’t. They see things beyond violet. They see ULTRA-violet. And every yellow feather on an Emperor, every little white fleck on a Gentoo’s head, every Macaroni crest have all this UV glitter and it’s how they see each other and make friends.”
This is all uber-scientific and beyond a six-year old, but Mom types notes into her cell-phone anyway.
“Do you like unicorns, Christina?”
She smiles, “Yes.”
“Well, penguins are unicorns in a way. They see glitter, and they sparkle. We just can’t always see it, but they’re pretty special. Can I get a high-five?”
And Christina slaps my hand.
“Good luck on your project, Friend. You asked really good questions.”
She smiles, probably relieved that she’s done having talked to a stanger who smells of fish and who has ten keys jangling off his belt-loop.
But this kinduv stuff makes my day. Christina, tattooed girl, and lavender-haired Mom: thank you for loving the animals and for showing interest beyond the norm. You make my life.


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