What's all the flap about?

KIRAN CHUG
Last updated 14:58 27/08/2011
CHEEK TO BEAK: Niwa fisheries biologist Dan MacGibbon holds Happy Feet. Niwa scientists have been learning how to feed and handle the penguin before his release.
CRAIG SIMCOX/The Dominion Post
CHEEK TO BEAK: Niwa fisheries biologist Dan MacGibbon holds Happy Feet. Niwa scientists have been learning how to feed and handle the penguin before his release.

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Under a clear blue sky, Christine Wilton's stroll along Peka Peka Beach was interrupted by the shiny white object standing ahead of her.

She had no idea that her chance encounter with an emperor penguin would set off a conservation phenomenon that would grab headlines around the world, spark debate among experts, and provoke a nation to open its wallets and hearts.

After walking her dog on Peka Peka Beach that Tuesday morning of June 21, Mrs Wilton returned home to call Peter Simpson, the Conservation Department's Kapiti biodiversity programme manager. The previous afternoon, he had taken a call from a Raumati Beach resident who reported seeing what he thought was a large bird playing around in the water. Mr Simpson assumed it was a seal, the witness wasn't so sure, and the pair left it at that.

Mrs Wilton was more persistent. She described a penguin that came up to her chest - Mr Simpson assumed she was very short. "She said no, this thing is five foot tall. She thought it looked like an emperor. I said blimey." There had only ever been one emperor penguin to arrive on New Zealand's shores, at Southland's Oreti Beach in 1967.

Perplexed, he got on the phone to DOC's Waikanae office. They knew exactly what he was calling about, their phone was also ringing hot.

On his way out to Peka Peka Beach with fellow DOC workers, Mr Simpson didn't feel excitement building. He was more concerned about confirming whether or not the bird was in fact an emperor penguin. "Then we would have to figure out what would happen from there."

What would happen from there was far beyond DOC's control. One penguin's poor sense of direction was about to spark debates about animal welfare, arguments over the ethics of mankind intervening with nature, and broader questions about the funding of conservation in New Zealand.

At the beach, Mr Simpson discovered that those who had called in their reports had been right. In front of him, standing tall and apparently contented, was a juvenile male emperor penguin. He should have been at least 1000km further south. As the crowd of onlookers on the beach grew ever bigger, DOC decided against intervening. The agency's approach is not to interfere with an animal behaving normally. The penguin on the beach was. He was upright during the day, and swimming at night.

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"There was no thought at that stage to intervene, partly because we weren't quite sure what we would do with this thing."

Word quickly spread. People flocked from around the region to see the bird, which had quickly picked up a nickname inspired by a Hollywood animation about emperor penguins - Happy Feet.

DOC had settled for a hands-off approach, but locals pitched in by taking turns to guard him.

By Thursday, it was obvious to Mr Simpson that Happy Feet was anything but happy.

He had been spotted eating sand and had stopped playing in the surf. He enlisted the help of a small group of experts and on Friday morning they went to examine the unhappy bird. It was "crunch time". The bird's behaviour changed, but the world was still watching. Public pressure for something to be done was mounting.

One of DOC's options involved the logistical nightmare of taking a bird used to the Southern Ocean and chilling temperatures into care. But that was not its only option, Mr Simpson says.

"Another option was to leave it. If it dies, it dies." It was carefully considered. Internal DOC emails released to The Dominion Post reveal that staff were already copping abuse from members of the public with their own views about what should happen to Happy Feet. While expert advice was that non-intervention had been the correct policy, staff feared he would die on the beach - in view of a fired-up public.

By early Friday morning, the emails reveal that watching was no longer an option. In an email from the area manager to the conservator, the reality of the situation is spelled out: "A likely recommendation from vets will be to remove it from the beach (and therefore public view) to a clinic (Massey or possible Wellington Zoo) and then euthanasia [...] Obviously the messages around this outcome will take some careful handling, and huge media and public interest continues."

Mr Simpson says it boiled down to huge public expectation that DOC would do something with the penguin. "We couldn't let it die on the beach there. Public sentimentality, public expectations were that we had to do something. We were damned if we did and damned if we didn't."

Under the glare of the public and the world's media, the group assembled on the sand. Among those in the group was Colin Miskelly, Te Papa's terrestrial vertebrates curator. Throughout the week, he had been feeding information and educational material about emperor penguins to Mr Simpson.

Massey University associate professor John Cockrem had also got in touch to help, having studied emperor penguins in Antarctica.

Dr Cockrem says he had agreed with DOC in not intervening till that point. Yet come Friday morning, he was shocked to find a lethargic bird, eating sand in the same way penguins in Antarctica eat snow to cool down and rehydrate.

"It was quite an unpleasant surprise to go down and see how much sand it was eating." He caught the bird, gathered it up in his arms, and the team transferred it into a large ice box ready in a waiting truck. "It struggled only a little bit. It really wasn't in good health."

With them was Wellington Zoo vet Lisa Argilla. She had arrived at the beach expecting The Dominion Post to be following the story, and perhaps some interest from a couple of television news crews. She was in no way prepared for the media scrum that developed, followed Happy Feet's truck down the state highway to Wellington Zoo and following his progress for the next two months.

Dr Argilla called the zoo to let them know it looked like they would be admitting Happy Feet. She asked that they get an air conditioned room ready that could be kept colder than 5 degrees Celsius.

They would need ice, she directed. When they arrived at the zoo, the news crews were already at its entrance.

Slowly, Happy Feet recovered. The procedures were lengthy, the veterinary care painstaking, and every minute was recorded. A live webcam was set up so enamoured fans could watch the return to health. A Penguin Advisory Committee was formed with, Mr Simpson says, a view to finding a long- term solution. "Not that I had known that penguins needed advisers."

Wellington Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield says keeping Happy Feet was never an option. While the cost of building and maintaining a home for him would have been "exorbitant", she points out that penguins are colony birds. "Zoos today are not a freak show. The point of having him was to get him well enough so he could go."

Had he been left on the beach, Happy Feet would have died, Ms Fifield says. It has cost the zoo about $27,000 so far to care for its impromptu star attraction.

There is no denying though, that despite the cost, caring for Happy Feet has done the zoo's profile no harm. This July, 19,575 people passed through the zoo's gates, up 1000 from the same month the year before. Attendance figures for August are also looking healthy.

With tomorrow's Haere Ra Happy Feet farewell event publicised as the last chance to see the famous bird, it is likely this month's figures will also surge. Last year was a record year for the zoo, attracting 196,267 visitors.

Ms Fifield counters the cynicism levelled at the zoo's acceptance of Happy Feet as a way to increase visitor numbers. The zoo's vet hospital, The Nest, was built for this exact purpose, she says.

"This is nothing new. We've had kakapo, Chatham Island taiko, royal albatross. They are highly endangered species."

The building's design allows a crowd of people to watch through the glass windows as the vets perform surgery. A television screen broadcasts the action, and visitors can ask questions of the vets while they work.

In addition, Happy Feet - who was not on general display - has allowed the zoo to spread wider conservation messages, and attract funds for other projects. Donations, for example, are coming in from Bluebird but the money will not just go to Happy Feet.

The remainder will go to initiatives such as Places for Penguins, which the zoo runs with Forest & Bird.

That project sees volunteers build safer nesting sites around Wellington's coastline for little blue penguins, who each year fall prey to dogs and cars.

Ms Fifield says being able to raise awareness about the project, and direct funding towards it, is a direct benefit of having Happy Feet at the zoo. "We've got penguins in our own backyard and they're struggling too. It's about connecting those stories up."

A book deal about Happy Feet is also in train, and proceeds will also go to conservation projects. The zoo has worked hard to help Happy Feet, but Ms Fifield says he has ended up helping native species. If funds are left over from the donations that have poured in, they will be ploughed back into The Nest.

"Not only have we done our job, but he has done his job."

Given the strength of feeling Happy Feet has generated, it is inevitable that not everyone shares the view that DOC and the team of experts have made the right decisions. Mr Simpson recalls that first week. Pleading emails were sent to him from around the world. Save Happy Feet, they begged. Return him to Antarctica they implored - unaware that juvenile penguins do not spend their time so far south, and that no vessels could make it there in winter.

Kill him, put him out of his misery, others suggested. Leave him to die naturally was the other call. "I even had a guy from China that wanted to buy it."

Among the most vocal of those to question the decisions of the last two months is Victoria University's Wayne Linklater. A senior lecturer at the Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology, he says the best argument he has heard is that the events have raised public awareness - but even this is not a strong argument.

Looking back at the public and private donations, he believes resources could be directed to better places. They come as DOC is in the midst of cutting staff numbers to help cope with the $54 million shaved off its budget over four years.

"We are misleading ourselves. We are not being honest about what's important. We are not making informed decisions. We're letting ourselves get carried away with emotions."

He points out that rehabilitating animals from the wild usually has low success rates. Happy Feet will only wear his tracking tag for a few months, until it falls off when he moults. Perhaps we will never know if he makes it home. "We don't know whether all these resources were not just wasted. It's not good enough."

Ms Fifield agrees there are no statistics on success rates when it comes to releasing emperor penguins - it simply has not been done before. However, she sees an opportunity to gather some data.

While the zoo picked up the costs of looking after Happy Feet, the costs to DOC were minimal, and mainly involved staff time in that first week, Mr Simpson says.

He acknowledges there is nothing rare or endangered about emperor penguins - although DOC had to take responsibility for ensuring the bird was protected because it arrived here naturally.

"Where does that sit with the department's priorities? Honestly, it's fairly low. We've got more urgent things to deal with."

However, he says this is the most extraordinary event he has ever been involved with in his career. The bird was doing what animals naturally do, pushing the boundaries of their home range.

Yet as a result of one bird pushing that boundary further than the rest, the world has learnt a little about emperor penguins, and hopefully a little about other wildlife.

Mr Simpson hopes there are messages from the Happy Feet story people will remember. "There's wildlife out there. It does turn up on a beach near you or a mountain near you. There's more to this world than just humans."

Dr Argilla meanwhile, is preparing herself for the journey south.

When she returns to work, her routine will have changed greatly, and the emperor penguin will be somewhere out at sea.

We will track his movements online. We have watched him pulled from the brink of death, and just because he is leaving our shores, he will not be leaving our gaze.

Dr Simpson is realistic, "it might get chewed up by something bigger", he says. It is true. Yet looking back, he believes the time, the money, the work, and the effort, has all been worth it.

"I think what's happened is the best course. At the end of the day we still have to give an animal the best chance."

- The Dominion Post

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