Thursday 18 January 2018

Wayward penguin Happy Feet released

Happy Feet, the wayward emperor penguin, slides down a makeshift water slide into the Southern Ocean, south of New Zealand (AP/NIWA)
Happy Feet, the wayward emperor penguin, slides down a makeshift water slide into the Southern Ocean, south of New Zealand (AP/NIWA)
Happy Feet stands at the top of a makeshift water slide before he is released into the Southern Ocean (AP/NIWA)
Happy Feet looks out of his temporary pen before he is released into the Southern Ocean (AP/NIWA)

The wayward emperor penguin known as Happy Feet is back home in Antarctic waters after an extended sojourn spent capturing hearts in New Zealand.

Happy Feet was released into the ocean south of New Zealand on Sunday, more than two months after he came ashore on a beach nearly 2,000 miles from home and became an instant celebrity.

Speaking from a satellite phone aboard the research vessel Tangaroa, Wellington Zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla said Happy Feet's release went remarkably smoothly given that the boat was being tossed about in 25ft swells in the unforgiving Antarctic Ocean.

Ms Argilla said crew members from the boat carried the penguin inside his custom-built crate to the stern of the ship for his final send-off. The crew had already cut the engines and put in place a canvas slide that they soaked with water from a hose.

But when they opened the door of the crate, the penguin showed no interest in leaving. "I needed to give him a little a tap on his back," Ms Argilla said. The penguin slipped down the slide on his stomach, bottom first, she said. He resurfaced about 6ft from the boat, took a look up at the people aboard and then disappeared beneath the surface.

"I was really happy to see him go," Ms Argilla said. "The best part of my job is when you get to release animals back into the wild where they are supposed to be."

The 3ft-tall aquatic bird was found on June 20 on Peka Peka Beach, about 40 miles north-west of New Zealand's capital, Wellington. It had been 44 years since an emperor penguin was last spotted in the wild in New Zealand.

At first, conservation authorities said they would wait and let nature take its course with the penguin. But it soon became clear the bird's condition was deteriorating, as he scooped up beaks full of sand and swallowed, probably mistaking it for snow, which emperor penguins eat for its moisture when in Antarctica.

With the world watching, authorities finally took action, moving the penguin to Wellington Zoo four days after he was discovered. At the zoo, the three-year-old bird underwent numerous stomach flushing procedures to remove sand from his digestive system. He was given a makeshift home in a room that zoo staff kept filled with a bed of ice so he would not overheat.

A local television station, TV3, set up a webcam and streamed images of the bird round the clock. Soon, Happy Feet had a quarter of a million followers. And, perhaps befitting of a bird from the internet age, those followers will be able to keep track of him for a while longer. Happy Feet has been fitted with a GPS tracker and his movements will be posted online. Ms Argilla expects the tracker to fall off the next time the bird malts.

Press Association

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