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Helps at hand to p-p-pick up a blind penguin


Shireen Helps tosses Blindy into a pond in Flea Bay (AP)

Shireen Helps tosses Blindy into a pond in Flea Bay (AP)

Shireen Helps tosses Blindy into a pond in Flea Bay (AP)

Penguins may be flightless but thanks to animal lover Shireen Helps, tragic Blindy has, for a few moments anyway, managed to get airborne.

The little blue penguin was born without functioning eyes and developed the unusual habit of swimming in tight circles.

So to prevent the bird from continually crashing into the side of the small pond where it swims, Mrs Helps began tossing it out into deeper water.

Blindy lives in New Zealand's Flea Bay, home to three humans and more than 2,500 penguins. Efforts by the Helps family over more than three decades have helped save the bay's penguins from predators while many nearby colonies were wiped out.

Blindy, who is about 12 weeks old, was from a nearby colony and was found by a local farmer after it had left its nest and got lost in a creek.

Mrs Helps said Blindy was born with a malformed head and beak, making it hard to tell if it is male or female. She said at first its circling antics seemed to make the penguin disorientated but now it is swimming more confidently.

"If it gets dizzy going around one way, it changes direction and goes around the other way," she said. "So it's really learning very well."

She said the penguin is too disabled to be returned to the wild, but she hopes that a zoo might take it. Although penguins are sea birds, they can also live in fresh water and often do so in zoos.

These days, the Flea Bay colony is thriving, a hopeful sign at a time when many penguin species from the Galapagos Islands to Antarctica are facing threats from humans that come from overfishing and global warming.

Mrs Helps and her husband Francis never intended to become penguin custodians. Francis moved to Flea Bay, also known as Pohatu, in 1969, with the intention of farming sheep and cattle. It was not until the first night, when he was kept awake by noises like a donkey braying, that he realised he was surrounded by penguins.

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"They're very noisy at night, especially pre-breeding," said Mrs Helps. "They get really wound up. They party all night."

After meeting Francis, Shireen moved to the bay in 1974, and said she noticed other penguin colonies in the area were disappearing.

"And that's when we started to look critically around our own back yard," she said. "We found dead penguins everywhere. We realised that predators were hitting into them and if somebody didn't do something to save this colony, it would be lost."

The couple began trapping feral cats, ferrets and stoats and also built tiny wooden huts for the penguins to monitor them and to stop them fighting each other for nesting sites. Finally, they started nursing the sick birds, managing to save some and return them to the wild.

Found in parts of Australia and New Zealand, the penguins go by several names: little penguins, little blue penguins, and fairy penguins. Adults stand just 33cm and weigh 2.2lbs, making them the world's smallest penguin species.

Those living around the South Island's Banks Peninsula, where Flea Bay is located a little south east of Christchurch, are a local variant, known as white-flippered, due to the distinctive white stripes along the leading edge of their flippers.

Over the years, the Helps have developed an admiration for the little seabirds, and their observations have brought some amusing insights.

"A common thought is that penguins mate for life. Well, some of our monitoring notes make interesting reading if you're into soap operas," she said. "So yeah, they can fool around."

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