Emperor penguin must find own way home

KAY BLUNDELL
Last updated 05:00 23/06/2011
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Should the emperor penguin at Peka Peka be returned to its home?

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The rare arrival of an emperor penguin from Antarctica on a Kapiti Coast beach has sparked huge interest from bird watchers and pleas for it to be taken back to its homeland.

But the Conservation Department says the bird is fit and well and will be left to its own devices.

Experts had checked the bird, nicknamed Happy Feet, and confirmed it was healthy and in good condition, biodiversity programme manager Peter Simpson said.

"There is not really a lot we can do. There are no facilities in New Zealand that can care for it long-term," Mr Simpson said.

"The zoo is not an option and Kelly Tarlton's has different species of penguins and there would be disease issues".

The Department was working with penguin experts and hoped the rare visitor would hop back in the water soon and head home.

It was venturing into the sea at night to feed and moving between locations on the beach.

"We keep our interference with wild animals to an absolute minimum, and this emperor penguin is no exception," Simpson said.

The juvenile penguin was named Happy Feet by Peka Peka Beach resident Chris Wilton, who first saw it on Monday afternoon, standing on the beach flapping its flippers. It weighs about 10 kilograms and stands about a metre tall.

It is only the second time an emperor penguin has been recorded on New Zealand shores and DOC put up a sign near it yesterday, urging people to keep their distance and to ensure dogs were kept on leads.

Mr Simpson said people had flocked to the beach to see the penguin and a lot of admirers had asked why it was not being taken back to Antarctica.

"It is midwinter and completely dark down there, there is nothing going there.

"More importantly, during its long trip here, it would have come across other penguins and penguin diseases and we do not want to take it back and introduce those diseases to Antarctica."

The 7000-kilometre distance it had swum was not particularly unusual, but emperor penguins more commonly turned up in South America rather than New Zealand.

Massey University associate professor John Cockrem, who has studied emperor penguins in Antarctica, said if people stayed well away and it was not scared by dogs, "it should be fine".

"Penguins are naturally curious animals and the presence of people should not stress it too much. But if it is chased or scared suddenly, it will get stressed out."

The penguin was likely to head back to the sea of its own accord, but if it didn't, it needed to be taken into captivity, he said.

"Kelly Tarlton's in Auckland is the logical place. Emperor penguins need a cold climate to survive, and they should have the facilities to provide that."

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- The Dominion Post

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