Emperor penguin comes through surgery

Last updated 14:31 27/06/2011
Marcus Wild

Doctors have removed a handful of sticks, 150ml of sand and 400ml of fluid from stray penguin Happy Feet's stomach during an operation. By Marcus Wild.

Happy feet
ANDREW GORRIE/Dominion Post Zoom
The Emperor Penguin been released back into its icy enclosure at Wellington Zoo after having sand and sticks removed from it stomach.

Emperor penguin on Kapiti Coast

Penguin is sick

MEDICAL HELP: Wellington Zoo staff prepare Happy Feet for one of his stomach-flushing operations.

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Happy Feet the penguin is in recovery after doctors today removed more than one litre of fluid and handful of sticks from his stomach during an operation.

Surgery started on Happy Feet this morning with doctors using a device to suck sand, sticks and fish out of its stomach.

A leading Wellington surgeon helped work on the emperor penguin found on a Kapiti beach last week.

The juvenile emperor penguin, found about 4000 kilometres from home on Peka Peka Beach last week is undergoing an endoscopy to find out what is making him sick.

The 27kg bird was taken to Wellington Zoo where it has been staying in a makeshift, temperature-controlled room, on a bed of party ice.

More than 100 people gathered at the zoo along with dozens of journalists.

Doctors worked for about three hours to removed 1200ml of fluid and sand from its stomach along with a handful of sticks.

The operation had to be stopped after some of the equipment they were using broke.

It is now recovering and staff at the zoo said they would leave it to try and process the rest of his stomach contents before x-raying it again on Wednesday.

Wellington Zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said today the penguin was "bright'' but remained in a critical condition.

Ms Baker said Wellington Hospital gastroenterologist Dr John Wyeth would help with the procedure.

Dr Wyeth did his training in Wellington and at the Royal Free Hospital in London.

"Although we do endoscopies here, a gastroenterologist has a lot more experience and is also bringing along some specialised equipment,'' she said.

If Happy Feet pulls through another gruelling operation today, penguin experts will debate whether taking the Antarctic bird back home is the best option.

A Massey University penguin expert, Associate Professor John Cockrem, said choices included releasing the penguin into Foveaux Strait, or taking him back to Antarctica by boat or plane.

But transporting the bird would be risky and could threaten his survival.

If Happy Feet made it to Antarctica, then placing him with the other penguins would put them at risk of contracting diseases he may have picked up in New Zealand's more tropical climes.

The next trips to Antarctica are supply flights to Scott Base in August.

Businessman Gareth Morgan had offered Happy Feet a berth on a Russian icebreaker ship, but that would not be until February.

If he was released near Stewart Island, a tracking device could be used to follow his path, Mr Cockrem said.

The cost of housing the penguin is being borne jointly by DOC and Wellington Zoo. He is staying in a makeshift, temperature-controlled room, on a bed of party ice.

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DOC biodiversity programme manager Peter Simpson said they had "no idea" what to do yet, and would discuss a permanent solution in the next few days.

This was by far the most bewildering conservation issue he had been involved in, he said. "It's way outside of its usual operating range, and that's why it's so extraordinary that it's survived."

Responding to criticisms that DOC should have acted earlier, Mr Simpson said there had been no reason to intervene until Happy Feet's condition deteriorated.

The penguin initially appeared healthy and experts had hoped that it would make its own way home. Elephant and leopard seals from Antarctica had become stranded on the New Zealand coast and usually left of their own accord.

- The Dominion Post with NZPA

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