Saving the penguins

Baltimore's gift: Mission to South Africa illustrates caring -- and need for vigilant oversight.

July 26, 2000

ON THE SCENE of another catastrophic oil spill, Baltimoreans Sharon Overholser and Steve Sarro braved 16-hour days with battered, biting penguins to save a species.

The crisis arose when a Panamanian freighter, ironically named Treasure, sank off Cape Town, South Africa, near the habitat of some 40,000 African penguins. About 19,000 of them were coated with oil, their ability to swim and find food compromised.

Ms. Overholser and Mr. Sarro quickly joined one of the largest bird rescue operations in history, an enterprise requiring money, expertise and personal commitment.

Ms. Overholser cares for 80 African penguins at the Baltimore Zoo and Mr. Sarro is its curator of birds.

Lucky penguins. They have the sort of charm that generates an outpouring of sympathetic giving and volunteering. Elegant and dignified, they are simultaneously playful and prayerful.

The affecting pictures of Ms. Overholser ministering to the stricken birds reminds us of the toll taken by similar disasters. Only two of 28 species, for example, have fully recovered from the world's most famous spill, the 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe.

Exxon paid $300 million in penalties. An investigation will be needed to determine if similar action is warranted against the Treasure's owner.

Tankers plying the Chesapeake Bay are required to offer proof that they have obeyed federal regulations. And Maryland reserves the right to inspect ships in Maryland waters.

Regulations may be tighter and less forgiving. But the plight of the African penguin shows again that vigilant enforcement of anti-spill rules is a critical necessity.

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