A Chinese proverb says that when you save a life, you’re forever responsible for it. And so it goes with a widowed fisherman, living on a remote beach in Brazil and his small but loyal feathered friend.

He calls him Jinjing, and without fail, the Magellanic penguin returns, like the prodigal son, after disappearing for days, weeks and even months to reconnect with the retired bricklayer, Joao Pereira de Souza — the human who saved his life.

The relationship was forever bonded in 2011, when de Souza found the oil-soaked bird lying on a beach by his shady home in Rio de Janeiro state. De Souza, 71, fed the bird sardines and enticed it to drink water.

Jinjing is a term of endearment in parts of Brazil, and not unlike a dog, the penguin never lets de Souza down – and even manages to perform his penguin duties.

Once a year, Jingjing joins thousands of other Magellanic penguins and migrates some 2,000 miles south to the Patagonia region during breeding season, which lasts from early September through February. And then he always comes back to the warm stretch of sand in Proveta, in southeast Brazil.

“When he returns he’s so happy to see me,” Mr. de Souza told The Wall Street Journal. “He comes up to my neck and hoots,” he added.

Magellanic penguins typically live up to 25 years in the wild.

According to some scientists, overfishing may account for birds like Jingjing ending up so farther north into the tropics. In fact, in 2004 Magellanic penguins were included in the list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.

Mr. de Souza’s daughter, Mery Alves de Souza, told the Journal that her father fusses so much over Jinjing that it is hard to persuade him to visit his real children in Rio de Janeiro, six hours away.

In June, he planned to stay in Rio a week but returned home after two days, fearing Jinjing wouldn’t get enough to eat. “We call him and tell him to come visit and he says, ‘OK, OK,’ ” she says. “But then he doesn’t.”

“It’s like a son to him.”

Like any devoted friend, Jinjing can be jealous, scaring off any animal that dares approach de Souza.

“I never saw a critter get so attached,” Mr. de Souza said.  "You can let him go wherever you want, but he’ll come right back.”

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