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Releasing Happy Feet of the south coast of the country is the best option for its survival, according to a penguin researcher.
The emperor penguin has undergone three operations since turning up on Peka Peka Beach on the Kapiti Coast, to remove sticks and sand from his stomach. Staff at the Wellington Zoo said the bird was “perkier” this morning and it was hoped a special diet of oil fish milkshakes, fluids and medication would help him to pass the remainder of his stomach contents naturally.
There had been suggestions that the emperor penguin may be lonely, as the birds are usually highly social creatures. Vets were yesterday considering a suggestion by a 3 News reporter they put up mirrors at the Wellington Zoo where Happy Feet is currently being treated, or pipe in penguin noises.
But speaking to Massey University penguin researcher Associate Professor John Cockrem says that at Happy Feet’s time of life, penguins are used to being on their own.
Once Happy Feet recovers, experts will have to decide what they will do next. Options include taking the penguin home to Antarctica by boat or plane, or releasing him off the New Zealand coast with a tracking device attached.
But taking Happy Feet home could post a health risk for the penguin colony he rejoins, as he may have picked up diseases on its travels.
Mr Cockrem says taking the penguin 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.”
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, he says.
Keeping the bird in captivity would provide a stable home for him, but also has its drawbacks. Mr Cockrem says there is no facility in New Zealand that is available to provide the right climate conditions.
“Nor are there any other emperor penguins here,” he says.
The first emperor penguin found in New Zealand was released in Foveaux Strait, and release back to sea would also be the best option for Happy Feet.
“We would be releasing it into its own environment and a satellite tag could be used to track its progress,” he says.
“It would be returning to its natural life with the minimum of stress.”