An Emperor penguin found in New Zealand will be released into the ocean when fully fit so it can swim the 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) home to Antarctica, wildlife experts said Wednesday.
The penguin, nicknamed “Happy Feet”, was found wandering on a beach near Wellington last week and was taken to the city’s zoo when it became sick after eating sand and sticks.
After three rounds of surgery, including one performed by a top New Zealand surgeon, the zoo said Wednesday that its condition had stabilised and attention had turned to what would become of the unusual visitor.
A specially-formed “penguin advisory group”, comprising experts from the zoo, Department of Conservation (DOC), Wellington’s Massey University and the national museum Te Papa met Wednesday to decide its fate.
“The group has agreed the preferred option for the Emperor penguin is to release it in the Southern Ocean, southeast of New Zealand,” DOC spokesman Peter Simpson said.
“This is the northern edge of the known range of juvenile Emperor penguins.”
Simpson said other options canvassed included keeping the penguin in captivity, which was discounted due a lack of suitable facilities, and taking it back to Antarctica.
“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,” he said.
However, Wellington Zoo’s veterinary manager Lisa Argilla said earlier this week that it could be months before the penguin was healthy enough for release because it was underweight following its long swim north and intestinal trauma.
In the meantime, the zoo said it would live in an air conditioned room carpeted with crushed ice to cool it in the relative warmth of New Zealand, where the mercury currently sits around 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit).
It is thought the bird, only the second Emperor penguin ever recorded in New Zealand fell ill on the beach after mistaking sand for snow and eating it in a bid to lower its temperature, clogging its gut.
The Emperor penguin is the largest species of the distinctive waddling creature and can grow up to 1.15 metres (3ft 9in) tall.
The reason for Happy Feet’s appearance in New Zealand remains a mystery, although experts say Emperor penguins take to the open sea during the Antarctic summer and this one may have simply wandered further than most.