What if threatened species, instead of waiting for extinction, decided to charm humans into saving them? That's the plot of this winter's hit film, Happy Feet, in which emperor penguins score a total moratorium on Antarctic fishing thanks to their winsome tap-dancing routines. Environmental groups are using the film, and last year's equally popular documentary March of the Penguins, to push their messages — especially the dangers of increasing fishing in the Southern Ocean and climate change.

Mark Stevens, a campaign manager at the National Environmental Trust, sees Happy Feet as a way to boost audiences' environmental awareness. “It's a fun, gentle way to educate people about it. Whenever we get a chance, we like to talk about the facts behind the movie.” In Happy Feet, the penguins' fish shortage is caused by humans. Stevens says that another source of food for some penguins is threatened in real life: “Fishing for krill is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years.”


During the height of March of the Penguins' popularity, lawyers at another environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson, Arizona, decided to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to list a dozen penguin species as endangered. They timed the move to the release of Happy Feet. “We scrambled to assemble and file the petition while the buzz around the movie was at its peak,” says Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the group.

But all this animated advocacy has some US commentators up in arms, criticizing Happy Feet as propaganda by stealth. Conservative-leaning Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto called it an “animated Inconvenient Truth”, referring to former US vice-president Al Gore's documentary on climate change, even though the film doesn't mention global warming directly. Many children's films have had environmental themes in the past few years (see 'Messages in movies').

Meanwhile the US Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, although widely praised for setting sensible fishing quotas, is being pressured by various groups of environmentalists and scientists to consider more cautiously the whole Antarctic ecosystem, including penguins, when setting fishing restrictions in the Southern Ocean. One major effort is the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, in which the National Environmental Trust and Pew Charitable Trusts are both involved.

David Ainley, an ornithologist and adviser for ecological consultants H. T. Harvey & Associates, spoke to Nature via satellite phone from Ross Island in Antarctica, and understandably hasn't seen Happy Feet yet. He's less worried about krill than about Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) further up the food chain, but adds that the combined effect of climate change and human intervention on the food web are complex and need more research.

Even Ainley's perspective is likely to be more widely disseminated thanks to penguinmania. He's producing a film on climate change and Adelie penguins, which he hopes to distribute to schools. “Obviously,” he says, “we're banking on penguins for the wide distribution of our educational DVD.”