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Edinburgh Zoo

Sir Nils Olav, Norway’s Penguin Knight

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Edinburgh Zoo

The United States Marines have their bulldogs and the Army has their mules, but the Norwegian Royal Guard has a mascot a little more accustomed to colder temperatures: Nils Olav, a King Penguin who is also a Colonel-in-Chief and a knight. As implausible as it seems, the story of how a humble bird ascended to such a distinguished title is actually more straightforward than you’d think.

In 1913, to commemorate the Edinburgh Zoo’s opening, Norwegian citizen Christian Salvesen presented the Zoo with its first King Penguin, paving the way for positive, pro-penguin relations between Scotland and Norway from that day forward. In 1961, as part of their routine visit to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual international army display, the Norwegian King’s Guard happened upon the Zoo’s penguin exhibit. Lieutenant Nils Egelien was enchanted by the waddling birds, and returned in 1972 with the intent of adopting one of them as the army’s new mascot. He did, and it was named Nils Olav, both for the penguin-loving lieutenant and in homage to Olav V, the King of Norway at the time.

Upon his adoption, Nils Olav was immediately given the title of visekorporal, or lance corporal—the lowest rank granted to a non-commissioned officer. When the King’s Guard returned, they upped his officer status: a decade after his first adoption, Norway’s mascot became Corporal Nils Olav. Over the years, Nils has risen through the ranks, from Sergeant to Regimental Sergeant Major to Honorable Regimental Sergeant Major until finally, in 2005, he became the Colonel-in-Chief he is today. Being a penguin doesn’t excuse him from the rules of uniform dress, either—in the absence of a military uniform, he wears the insignia tied to his right flipper.

So what exactly does a penguin do to merit moving upwards through the ranks of the Norwegian military, despite never having seen combat? According to the Guardsmen, Nils continues to be honored for his “outstanding service and good conduct”; presumably, that means he plays well with other penguins and stands tall when called to attention. On August 15, 2008, Nils’s good behavior took him all the way to knighthood, as British Major General Euan Loudon ceremonially dropped a sword on each of the penguin’s winged sides, standing in place of the Norwegian king. King Harald V, though not present at the ceremony, issued a citation to congratulate the penguin on his conduct, describing Nils as “in every way qualified to receive the honor and dignity of knighthood”—not too shabby for a bird who can’t fly.

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