Happy Feet to be released into sea

By Paul Harper

Happy Feet - the emperor penguin found on Peka Peka Beach - has been recovering at Wellington Zoo after its endoscopy. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Happy Feet - the emperor penguin found on Peka Peka Beach - has been recovering at Wellington Zoo after its endoscopy. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Happy Feet the emperor penguin is to be released in to the Southern Ocean once it is fit, an advisory group has decided today.

The advisory group - comprising of representatives of the Department of Conservation, Wellington Zoo, Massey University and Te Papa - meet today to decide the fate of the penguin, who was found on the Kapiti Coast's Peka Peka Beach last week.

The group has agreed the preferred option for the emperor penguin is to release it in the Southern Ocean, the northern edge of the known range of juvenile emperor penguins.

"The reason for not returning the penguin directly to Antarctica is that emperor penguins of this age are usually found north of Antarctica on pack ice and in the open ocean," DOC biodiversity spokesperson Peter Simpson said.

The penguin will not be released until it is deemed well enough to have a reasonable chance of survival and until that time the penguin will reside at Wellington Zoo.

Plans are still in the early stages however, and more research is required into the logistics and practicalities of this option, including costs.

The bird remains in a stable condition at Wellington Zoo following an operation to remove sand and sticks from its stomach this week.

X-rays this morning showed the penguin is continuing to pass sand and sticks naturally, spokeswoman Kate Baker said, and it will be x-rayed again either on Friday or Saturday.

Penguins usually eat snow for hydration and to keep cool and it was believed Happy Feet ate the sand because it was confused about where it was.

Sea release "best option"

Massey University associate professor John Cockrem, from the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Science, who has been consulting with the Department of Conservation, had earlier advocated 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."

Other options were keeping the bird in captivity either in New Zealand or overseas, or giving it a lift back home, however these have drawbacks.

Millionaire businessman Gareth Morgan has offered to take the bird home by giving it a berth on a Russian icebreaker making an expedition to the Ross Sea in Antarctica in February.

However taking Happy Feet back to Antarctica would be illegal under the Antarctic Treaty, and would require a special permit.

Returning the penguin to Antarctica could introduce diseases to the existing colonies, and there may be difficulty finding the bird's original colony.

Marine scientist AUT professor Dr Mark Orams has cautioned against being "seduced by the romantic notion of returning it to the wild"
without careful consideration of the penguin's health, saying it may not survive Antarctica's tough winter conditions.

"To simply relocate it to where it came from may not be in its best interests," he said.

Dr Orams was also 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," he said. "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."

- Herald Online, NZPA

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