Experts divided on penguin's future

By Paul Harper

Debate has raged on whether the emperor penguin who ended up on the Kapiti Coast should be taken down to Antarctica, released off the coast of New Zealand to find its own way home, or kept in captivity. Photo / supplied
Debate has raged on whether the emperor penguin who ended up on the Kapiti Coast should be taken down to Antarctica, released off the coast of New Zealand to find its own way home, or kept in captivity. Photo / supplied

Experts are divided on what action should be taken with the Kapiti Coast emperor penguin once it returns to full health.

The Antarctic bird was last week found on Peka Peka beach and is currently in the care of Wellington Zoo, where medical staff have been extracting sticks and sand from its stomach.

Debate has raged on whether the bird should be taken down to Antarctica - with Gareth Morgan offering to pay its way back home, released off the coast of New Zealand to find its own way home, or kept in captivity in New Zealand.

Massey University associate professor John Cockrem, from the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Science, has consulted with the Department of Conservation since the bird was found last week and said a number of options are being discussed.

"Taking it back to Antarctica would be an issue on several levels," Dr Cockrem said.

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

Other issues with returning the bird to the frozen continent include the risk of introducing viruses to penguin colonies and the difficulty in finding the bird's original colony.

Dr Cockrem said keeping the bird in captivity in New Zealand would provide a stable home for the penguin however also had its drawbacks.

"There is no animal facility in New Zealand that is available to provide the right climate conditions, nor are there any other emperor penguin here.

"California does have the facilities, but again the time of transport would stress the bird immensely."

He believed releasing the penguin from the south coast of the New Zealand once it is back to full health would be the best option.

"We would be releasing it into its own environment and a satellite tag could be used to track its progress," Dr Cockrem said. "It would be returning to its natural life with the minimum of stress."

Marine scientist AUT professor Dr Mark Orams cautioned against being "seduced by the romantic notion of returning it to the wild" without careful consideration of the penguin's health.

"The reason for that is firstly the time of year. We're in winter at the moment and Antarctica is a pretty tough place over the winter. Also this particular individual is obviously not in great health at the moment and often when we have individuals that have separated or got lost and ended up in a very unusual situation like this one has there's a reason behind it.

"That reason can sometimes be social, sometimes simply can be a navigation mistake, sometimes it can be a physiological health problem.

"So to simply relocate it to where it came from may not be in its best interests.

"The alternative is to wait, to keep it in captivity under care for some time, until we know that it is very robust and healthy and then to return it a suitable location at an easier time of year over the warmer summer months. Or another alternative is if it is not considered by the medical staff to be viable to return to the wild is to look at a captive environment for it longer term."

Dr Orams was not confident the penguin would be able to make the swim back to Antarctica from New Zealand.

"I think that would be a very difficult situation for that individual to be in. My understanding is it is a sub-adult so it is not a very mature penguin and it is a hell of a long way back to Antarctica and there is no guarantee that the individual will be either willing or able to cover that huge distance.

"Personally I don't think that would be in the animal's best interests.
"We need to remember this is not a movie - this is real life, and it is easy to romantise the wild and what it is like."

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