When Joao Pereira de Souza found an oil-soaked Patagonian penguin in his backyard in May, 2011, he may have wondered how the sickly bird could have strayed so far from home.
But first things first - Pereira de Souza cleaned the friendly, two-toned wanderer, fed him sardines and nursed him back to health for his qualifying heat in the 8,000K swim (after all, the Olympics were but a few years away!).
Satisfied that his feathered friend was in the pink, the now 71-year-old retired mason paddled out to sea and released the penguin to return to his family.
He did. When a somber Pereira de Souza returned to his home off Proveta Beach in Rio de Janeiro, he was greeted by the same squeaking noise that summoned him to his backyard days earlier.
For the next several months, the pair was inseparable; wherever Pereira de Souza walked, his stout pal waddled alongside. If strangers drew too close, the penguin pecked them or scurried away.
Pereira de Souza named his feathered friend “Dindim,” after his two-year-old grandson’s tweaked pronunciation of “Pinguim,” the Portuguese word for penguin.
Dindim seemed to have become a permanent fixture in the Ilha Grande fishing village.
But was he?
In February, 2012, Dindim disappeared after molting. No one, including Pereira de Souza, thought Dindim would return.
Come June, however, Pereira de Souza again raced to his backyard to find Dindim squeaking with delight and wagging his backside.
Every year since, Dindim leaves in February and is back by June. Where he goes is a bit of a mystery. Magellanic penguins breed in the Patagonian regions of Argentina, the Falkland Islands and the south coast of Chile. However, per biologist Joao Paulo Krajewski, it is unlikely that Dindim makes his yearly pilgrimage from around the horn since he spends the time he would be breeding and molting with his adopted human.
Wherever Dindim comes from, Pereira de Souza is grateful for his unlikely bond: “I love him as if he were a child,” Pereira de Souza told TV Globo, “and he loves me . . . every year, he becomes more affectionate . . .”
Environmentalists express concern that climate change may be pushing Patagonian penguins farther north while Brazilian officials warn that contact with humans endangers the family structure of wild animals - which are illegal to keep as pets.
One can judge whether love shared between this man and penguin is ecologically responsible, but one cannot deny the power of loving - and letting go.
There’s gold in Rio, and not just on the Olympic medal platform.