11 July 2011

"Sand eater" Happy Feet to be released in the ocean

Happy Feet at Wellington Zoo.
NEW ZEALAND - It has been decided that release in the southern ocean, south east of New Zealand, is the preferred option for the emperor penguin whom New Zealand (and the world) has taken to their collective hearts as Happy Feet. This is the northern edge of the known range of juvenile emperor penguins.

The penguin, who was confirmed as a male by DNA tests, turned up on Kapiti’s Peka Peka Beach, thousands of kilometres from Antarctica. He then had to be taken to The Nest, Wellington Zoo’s hospital, after eating too much sand and too many sticks.

Since his arrival at The Nest, Happy Feet has undergone a series of procedures to remove the sand and sticks from his digestive system. After his latest procedure, on Saturday 2 July, the Zoo tweeted that he was “doing well”.

“It looks like most of the sand is out and he is moving on to whole pieces of fish.”

Wellington Zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker told the media on 11 July, “He now weighs 23kg and has gained 1kg since the sand was removed.”

Happy Feet is doing so well there is now talk of moving him to the Zoo’s pool house; Zoo staff are working on cooling the saltwater pool down to a suitable temperature for the penguin. He is currently residing in an air-conditioned room, where he is kept in darkness to stimulate current conditions in Antarctica (where is it constant night in winter) and to minimise his stress. While Zoo staff are doing their best for him, his accommodation still has its downsides.

“You can compare him in his enclosure to someone in hospital in terms of boredom,” Ms Baker said.

The move to the pool house would make his life a bit more exciting. Ms Baker said it might also give the public a chance to see the plucky penguin.

"If he would swim in the saltwater pool the public will be able to watch.”

The wayward bird has not been on display apart from during medical procedures, but the public has been able keep an eye on him via a liveweb cam set up by TV3 – “All penguin, all day”. So far I've seen some delightful tail-waggling, scratching sessions, and a lot of sleeping. Those Southern Hemisphere-side will be able to watch fresh snow deliveries and feeding times. 

Happy Feet will not be released until he is deemed well enough to have a reasonable chance of survival, and he will reside at the Zoo until this time. The Zoo’s veterinary science manager Lisa Argilla told the media that it was difficult to estimate how long this would be, but it was likely he would remain at the Zoo for a month.

Eventual release

The penguin’s eventual fate was decided by a special advisory group made of up representatives from the Department of Conservation (DOC), Wellington Zoo, Massey University and national museum Te Papa.

"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," said DOC biodiversity spokesperson Peter Simpson.

Massey University Associate Professor John Cockrem said, “Taking it back to Antarctica would be an issue on several levels. The weeks it could take to get there would put a lot of stress on the bird.”

Dr Cockrem spent three weeks camping and working with emperor penguins at a large colony at Cape Washington in Antarctica in 2004 studying stress responses in the birds.

He has discussed some of the issues with staff at Antarctica New Zealand, who agree that the issue is not as simple as just taking the penguin back to Antarctica. There are international protocols in place to protect Antarctic wildlife, and these protocols are important. The risks are real - there are multiple examples of Antarctic penguin colonies experiencing significant deaths due to suspected viruses. Another issue is finding the penguin's home colony as there is no way to be sure which of the several emperor penguin colonies this bird has originated from.

Antarctica New Zealand science manager Ed Butler told The Dominion Post, "Even if we screened Happy Feet, we still couldn't be sure that he wouldn't be carrying something that would turn up in blisters and sores in six months' time and kill all his mates."

"There are 150,000 breeding pairs in some colonies, and 65 per cent of that is a big number. That's a lot of dead penguins for one penguin."

Plans to return Happy Feet to the ocean are still in the early stages, however, and more research is required into the logistics and practicalities of this option, including costs. Sirtrack have offered to provide a transmitting device to be fitted to him before his release that will allow his movements to be tracked remotely via a satellite.

But wherever he is released, Lisa Argilla told The Dominion Post that it has to be some distance from land. “We don't want to have visibility of the land mass. He's a bit of a sand eater."

Feel the love

Meanwhile, help is pouring in for “NZ’s favourite penguin”, who made no. 3 on NZ news site Stuff’s “Top 10 list of animals that have captured our hearts”.

Wellington Zoo has created  a Happy Feet appeal, with all donations going towards ensuring his care and safe passage and will also support the other work that the Zoo does with penguins.

Businessman Gareth Morgan, who previously offered Happy Feet a place on a Russian icebreaker back to Antarctica, offered to match donations to the appeal dollar for dollar. His generosity meant money for the penguin’s NZ$10,000 food bill was raised within 24 hours. The Dominion Post reported that Dr Morgan got to meet Happy Feet after his operation last weekend.

Bluebird Foods has committed to donating 5 cents from every packet of “Kiwi As” potato chips sold to “The Happy Feet Appeal” and other penguin-related initiatives. Conservatively, this could mean at least $20,000 for the appeal.

Perhaps closer to Happy Feet’s heart than money is food, which Marlborough-based New Zealand King Salmon has donated in the form of 100kg of salmon smolt. Since the penguin moved on to solids after his sand-eating fiasco, he is eating up to 2kg of salmon per day.

Restless pioneer

So why did Happy Feet end up in New Zealand in the first place? Richard Sadleir, former director of science and research for DOC and former director ecology division of DSIR who has published research on the movements of Adelie penguins, speculates that “Happy Feet is a sort of pioneer, looking for a new place to live.”

In an opinion piece in The Dominion Post, Mr Sadlier wrote:

“Happy Feet is the second emperor penguin in 40 years to reach New Zealand shores since naturalists started keeping records. It is very likely that many emperors made it to New Zealand in the past 1000 years and many more would have travelled north and probably died before they could return home.”

“Ecologists think that the evolutionary reason for roaming animals, often called stragglers, is that, by chance they may arrive at a suitable place to live, then settle down and start a new colony, therefore extending the range.”

“The penguin seems to have travelled too far in its quest but its relatives back in Antarctica will continue the process of travelling far from home to see if new homes are available.”

Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly, who identified Happy Feet as an emperor on Peka Peka Beach and is a member of the special advisory committee, has written a very interesting entry on Te Papa's blog about why Happy Feet may have ended up in New Zealand, and the reasoning behind the committee’s decision: No latitude for error: a young emperor penguin a long way from home.

International condemnation

In other Happy Feet related news, The Dominion Post reported that DOC received angry emails from animal lovers around the world when it made its initial decision to leave Happy Feet to fend for himself on Peka Peka Beach.

The Dominion Post said the emails also revealed how close the penguin was to being euthanased.

Read related posts

@Wellington Zoo on Twitter, accessed at 8:49 PM on 11 July 2011 (NZ time)
New playground for Happy Feet, NZPA, 11 July 2011, Stuff.co.nz
Donations keep penguin’s salmon rolling in, 8 July 2011, The Dominion Post
Bluebird chips in to help Happy Feet, 5 July 2011, Bluebird Foods
King salmon feed emperor penguin, 5 July 2011, Wellington Zoo
Happy Feet may be setting up a colony by Richard Sadleir, 5 July 2011, The Dominion Post
Further operation for Happy Feet by Kiran Chug, 1 July 2011, The Dominion Post with NZPA
Condemnation over Happy Feet delay by Kiran Chug, 30 June 2011, The Dominion Post
Release in southern ocean preferred option for emperor penguin, 29 June 2011, Department of Conservation
No passage to Antarctica for Happy Feet by Michelle Duff and Janine Bennetts, 29 June 2011, The Dominion Post
Sea release best option, says penguin researcher, 28 June 2011, Massey University
Stuff’s top 10 animal heart-warmers, 28 June 2011, Stuff.co.nz
Help Wellington Zoo treat the emperor penguin “Happy Feet”, 26 June 2011, Wellington Zoo

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