Desert penguins not cool, say activists

For the first time, penguins that normally live in the freezing cold near the South Pole can be found in the scorching Middle East. And that's ruffling some feathers, with some animal rights activists crying foul.

In Dubai's humid desert -- with its 120-degree summer heat -- a colony of penguins now lives a long way, in every way, from Antarctica.

They're transplants, 20 penguins in all, bred in captivity and newly-arrived from Sea World San Antonio.

Their new home is a mammoth indoor ski facility called Ski Dubai, on the Arabian Peninsula. Visitors can see penguins up close, touch them, and even swim with them.

"The whole objective of the program is to raise awareness about those wonderful creatures and about the environment," says Omar Al-Banna, the marketing director at Ski Dubai, "and what people should do and what they shouldn't do about the penguins and the environment."

The new arrivals will live in climate-controlled cool and be pampered like sheikhs. They won't have to hunt for fish. A staff of 13 people -- part minders, part butlers -- will serve them restaurant-quality dishes. Vets will see them every two weeks. And there's not a predatory seal in sight.

Still, some animal rights critics complain this exhibits distorts the true penguin experience in the wild, both for the birds and their visitors.

"These are ice animals and climate change and other issues impact them," says Humane Society International Vice President Kitty Block. "Does it educate people about the plight of these animals? So, if it's not educating and it's just entertainment, well then, there is a concern about that."

But the exhibit's organizers compare penguins to animal ambassadors that will now represent their species -- and flaunt their charm -- to a region that might otherwise never see them.

To see Mark Strassmann's report, click on the video in the player above.

  • Mark Strassmann

    Mark Strassmann was named CBS News Transportation correspondent in August 2011. He has been a CBS News correspondent since January 2001, and is based in the Atlanta bureau.

Comments