26 June 2011

Peka Peka penguin in critical condition after too much sand

The emperor penguin's operation draws
a crowd at Wellington Zoo.
Photo credit: @WellingtonZoo on Twitpic
NEW ZEALAND - The emperor penguin who swam 4000km from Antarctica to Kapiti's Peka Peka Beach is now in Wellington Zoo's hospital recovering from operations to remove sand from its stomach and oesophagus.

The penguin, nicknamed Happy Feet, was spotted at the beach on Monday 20 June. It was taken to the zoo on Friday after the Department of Conservation (DOC) rangers monitoring it noticed its behaviour had changed and it was showing signs of ill health.

On an initial examination, Wellington Zoo veterinary staff said the penguin was dehydrated and suffering from heat exhaustion, and appeared to have a blockage in its throat, which x-rays later showed was sand.

DOC biodiversity manager Peter Simpson told the Dominion Post that the bird had probably been eating sand in an effort to cool down, as penguins normally eat snow if they become too hot.

The penguin has subsequently undergone two procedures, one on Friday and one on Saturday, to flush the sand out of its system, but there is still a lot more sand to come out. The Sunday Star Times reported that the operation on Saturday was watched by about 100 people behind a glass partition. 

The bird is currently recovering from its operations in a special cold room "complete with shaved ice and air conditioning", the zoo tweeted. "Yep he is munching on ice."

The latest tweet said the penguin had survived another night and will spend another day "chilling out" in its cold room. In a previous tweet the zoo said the bird may undergo another procedure on Monday.

Zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla told the Sunday Star Times that the 3kg of sand threatened to harden into concrete balls that could rupture its stomach. It was still in critical condition, despite the surgery.

Meanwhile, if the penguin survives, it may have a way back home - Dr Gareth Morgan of Gareth Morgan Investments has offered the penguin a free sea passage back to Antarctica on a Russian icebreaker. The "Our Far South" expedition leaves in February 2012 and expedition leader Dr Morgan has offered a berth for the penguin and its DOC minder.

"[T]he penguin would be able to look out for its friends en route and given the option to jump ship if it spots some of its kin," said Dr Morgan.

"Of course until that time Happy Feet will have to be cared for here in Wellington, where we’re lucky enough to have a great community of wildlife experts, capable not just of pumping sand but also ensuring this wayfaring fellow is hosted appropriately until it’s time to set sail."

DOC had said on Wednesday (when the penguin still appeared healthy and happy at the beach) that they were leaving the penguin to its own devices and that returning it to Antarctica was not feasible because there is no transport there in the winter and it is currently dark 24 hours of the day.

"DOC is not planning to move the penguin," said Mr Simpson at the time. "There is no reason to shift a healthy animal to an artificial environment or return it to the sea ... when the penguin wants to swim it will take to the water itself. We are letting nature take its course."

Now that the penguin is ill and has required human intervention, I wonder if DOC's stance on transporting it back to Antarctica will change.

Fingers crossed for a safe recovery (and hopefully a return to the wild) for this adventurous bird! 

Read previous post: Emperor penguin a rare treat for New Zealanders

From Kiwisaver to penguin-saver by Susan Pepperell, 26 June 2011, Sunday Star Times
@WellingtonZoo on Twitter, last accessed 10:30am, 26 June 2011 (NZ time)
Expedition leader offers to return Happy Feet to Antarctica, 25 June 2011, Dr Gareth Morgan
Penguin strong but given 50/50 chance by Kay Blundell, 24 June 2011, Michelle Duff, The Dominion Post and Stuff
Emperor penguin's health being monitored, 24 June 2011, Department of Conservation
Emperor penguin faring well, 22 June 2011, Department of Conservation 

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