Flightless feathered friends nabbed more than their fair share of headlines this year, but it was one geographically confused penguin that captured the nation's hearts.

Facing stiff competition from a rare white kiwi and hundreds of oiled little blue penguins, Happy Feet earned his place at the top of the pecking order after washing up on a Kapiti Coast beach in June, hundreds of kilometres from his Antarctic home.

The 3-year-old emperor penguin quickly captured the public's imagination and shot to international fame, but his fortunes took a turn for the worse after an ill-advised diet of beach debris led to his hospitalisation at Wellington Zoo.

Happy Feet, named for the 2006 animated film, underwent four costly operations to remove sticks, stones and sand from his stomach. After a full recovery, and plenty of debate over his future, Happy Feet was packed onto a research vessel and released into the Southern Ocean in September.

Whether he made it back home to Antarctica is anyone's guess.

A tracking device fixed to his feathers stopped transmitting less than a week after his release, leading to speculation that Happy Feet had become a Happy Meal.

Thoughts of a watery grave must be particularly grim for Lisa Argilla, the veterinarian who helped nurse him back to health.

But she can chalk up success with another high-profile patient fond of swallowing stones.

Manukura, thought to be the only white kiwi born in captivity, faced certain death after two large stones became lodged in her stomach in October. Dr Argilla was part of the team who performed a delicate touch-and-go operation, helping to ensure the survival and ongoing recovery of the rare white kiwi.

Manukura first caused a stir when she hatched in captivity in the Wairarapa in May, with pictures of the cute but stroppy chick going global. Last week another white kiwi, Mauriora, was hatched from the same parents.

But New Zealand birds also made international headlines for all the wrong reasons this year, after a an oil spill in the Bay of Plenty that has been labelled the worst marine environmental disaster in New Zealand'shistory.

More than 2000 seabirds were killed and about 340 were taken to wildlife recovery centres after the container ship Rena ran aground off the Tauranga coast, spilling 350 tonnes of tar-like heavy fuel oil.

Those seabirds lucky enough to survive have faced a long road to recovery, with wildlife experts putting in hundreds of hours of tireless work to carefully feed and clean them and restore them to health.

The first 49 little blue penguins were released back into the wild in late November, and the rest will get the chance to dip their webbed feet back into the sea as further progress is made on cleaning up oiled beaches.

In contrast to those remarkable efforts was a catalogue of shameful animal abuse.

Animal welfare advocates chalked up a victory when Jason Trevor Godsiff, 20, was jailed for two years in September for bashing to death 25 fur seals near Kaikoura, some of them pups, with a galvanised metal pole.

But vindication soon turned to disappointment when his sentence was reduced to eight months' home detention on appeal - still a sizeable sentence for a young, first-time offender.

Another lengthy sentence was handed down to a Te Kuiti man who beat to death a 6-month-old puppy with a golf club in a prolonged and brutal attack.

He was banned for life from owning a dog and sentenced to 18 months' jail.

An 18-month sentence was also handed down to a man who beat and burned to death a 12-week-old kitten in front of the owner's daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter in Te Awamutu. He was also banned from owning an animal for 10 years.

Such abuse contrasted with remarkable luck - especially for two animals that survived after inadvertently hitching long rides in cars.

In January, a kitten made an accidental journey from Hamilton to Huntly and back after becoming stuck in the wheel arch of a car.

Hamilton man Stephen Parker heard the kitten crying out and discovered it trapped inside after enlisting the help of a mechanic.

Then in September, a seemingly indestructible duck survived after being struck by a car travelling at almost 100km/h.

Wellington man Phillip Johnson heard a thump after two ducks waddled on to State Highway 1 near Levin but thought both had managed to escape.

It wasn't until a day later that he checked his car for damage and discovered the duck stuck inside his car grille.

With the help of a vet - and a panelbeater - the duck was extracted and nursed back to health.

There may yet be hope for Happy Feet, too.

Rich-lister Gareth Morgan has announced plans to track down the lost penguin when he embarks on a30-day Antarctic scientific voyage in February.

For Happy Feet's legions of fans, it could be a happy ending to a mixed saga.