The hazards of penguins

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 45, No. 4, May 2003, Page 162 Editorials

In mid-March my wife and I flew back into Vancouver International Airport after being in Argentina for a few weeks. The two stops in the US on the way home were highlighted by the long waits created by the Bush administration’s orange alert security status and a requirement that we decontaminate all our shoes. This was a bit of an undertaking because we had a special bag just for activity footwear that included riding boots, hiking boots, Tevas, running shoes, and street shoes. I guess the North American security paranoia presently covers every possible size of invader, but I was intrigued when first-contact officials in both countries questioned if we had been on a farm or around penguins at any time in the past 3 weeks. The answer to both questions was yes, as we had been horseback riding for a week in Patagonia as well as visiting a penguin rookery in Tierra del Fuego all within that time. I felt a little like Typhoid Mary as I handed over an armload of shoes and boots—including the shoes I was wearing—while enduring the disapproving stares of a large assemblage of US Customs and Agriculture officials (all wearing side arms). After our potential fomites were satisfactorily decontaminated we were cleared, but it seemed somewhat reluctantly by the cadre of homeland security specialists, as I think we were the only passengers keeping this group busy. I felt a little bad that we weren’t able to brighten their day with the prospect of lengthy interrogations and body cavity searches. 

We had been in very isolated regions in central and southern Patagonia, where the only mode of transportation was by horseback. The estancia where we spent the most time was about 50 000 acres and raised sheep, cattle, and some pigs. We were on horseback 8 to 10 hours per day, usually with some riding at night as well, so we covered an enormous amount of country, and if there were any bad bugs on the ground we certainly could have come in contact with them. I helped the gauchos castrate pigs as well, and in the process became intimately connected with the worst of Pampas soils, so once again my potential for contact was quite high. I have been trying to inventory the types of bugs that I could have brought back with me and the list includes the likes of coccidiodomycosis, anthrax, plague, tuberculosis, and brucellosis. (I’m sure the list is longer but it would be boring to pursue it further.) My original training as a microbiologist has goaded me into a renewed appreciation for the US decontamination process. 

The burning microbiological question that remains, however, is why did they want to know if I had been around penguins? What do penguins have that I could bring back to North America that would potentially be hazardous to man or beast? If anyone has the answer I would really appreciate a heads-up. 

Finally, I have just completed my 37th bath since returning to Canada 3 days ago and I am starting to feel a little less hazardous. 


James A. Wilson, MD. The hazards of penguins. BCMJ, Vol. 45, No. 4, May, 2003, Page(s) 162 - Editorials.

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