Emperor penguin a global sensation

22:46, Jun 28 2011
Happy Feet
HE'S WORTH IT: About 100 people watch at the Wellington Zoo operating theatre as zoo manager vet services, Lisa Argilla, left, gastroenterologist John Wyeth, Kim Struthers and Elena Eliadou flush debris from the penguin's stomach.

The emperor penguin who took a wrong turn and ended up on a New Zealand beach has now become a global sensation.

New Zealand media have reported extensively on Happy Feet, which is the second-known emperor penguin to have been seen on our shores.

But it's not just Kiwis who are falling in love with the penguin that swam more than 3000km to reach Peka Peka beach, north of Wellington, last week.

Happy Feet is one of the most famous birds in the world - with The Guardian, Daily Mail and CNN all reporting on its extraordinary journey.

The bird was also the talk of the Twitter world, with many posts signalling they hoped it would soon recover from its illness and be safely returned to its home in Antarctica.

After arriving at Peka Peka beach it became increasingly ill and was taken to Wellington Zoo where it is undergoing treatment to remove sand and twigs from its stomach.

Penguins usually eat snow for hydration and to keep cool. However, experts believe it ate the sand because it was confused about where it was.

The bird has had three procedures to remove sand from its stomach, including an operation yesterday, which was performed by Wellington Hospital gastroenterologist John Wyeth, who usually performs on humans.

About 100 people watched the three-hour endoscopy.

Zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said this morning that Happy Feet was doing well and remained in a stable condition.

The penguin would have another X-ray tomorrow which would determine if any further procedures were required but zoo staff were hoping the bird would pass the remaining sand naturally.

The emperor penguin, whose gender is unknown pending DNA results, was keeping cool by staying in an air conditioned room with crushed ice.

A penguin advisory committee, including experts from Massey University, the zoo, Te Papa and the Conservation Department, would decide in the next few days what to do with Happy Feet.

Returning the bird to Antarctica was not feasible as there were no flights there until later in the year. Experts have also advised that large birds could suffer trauma if transported long distances.

Massey University professor John Cockrem said the best option for the penguin was to release it in to the sea off the south coast of New Zealand.

"We would be releasing it into its own environment and a satellite tag could be used to track its progress," he said.

Cockrem, who spent three weeks camping with emperor penguins in Antarctica in 2004, said it was not just as simple as transporting it all the way back to Antarctica.

"The weeks it could take to get there would put a lot of stress on the bird," he said.

There was also a possibility the penguin had caught a virus which could spread when it returned to Antarctica.

Another option was to keep it in it captivity but there were no facilities in New Zealand which could house it, he said.


Businessman Gareth Morgan had offered the bird a seat on a Russian icebreaker ship in February.

The only previous recording of an emperor penguin in New Zealand was at Southland's Oreti Beach in 1967.

Zoo staff said that penguin was released in Foveaux Strait.

- MICHELLE COOKE/Stuff and MICHELLE DUFF/Dominion Post, with NZPA