Top surgeon operates on ‘lost’ emperor penguin

‘HAPPY FEET’::Wellington Zoo’s vet said the bird appeared to be well after surgery and said that once healthy, he may be released to swim home


Tue, Jun 28, 2011 - Page 6

One of New Zealand’s top surgeons was enlisted yesterday to operate on an ailing emperor penguin found on a beach near Wellington, 3,000km from its Antarctic home.

More used to dealing with sick humans than poorly penguins, surgeon John Wyeth performed a delicate two-hour operation on the bird, nicknamed “Happy Feet,” which has suffered declining health since it appeared last week.

Assisted by a six-person medical team, Wyeth performed an endoscopy to remove twigs, stones and sand that had been clogging the penguin’s gut, feeding a tiny camera down its throat then looping a line around the debris.

“It [was] a memorable experience,” said Wyeth, the head of gastroenterology at Wellington Hospital and a former president of the New Zealand Society of Gastroenterology. “I wasn’t familiar with the anatomy ... if I did a similar procedure in a human it would take me 10 minutes.”

Only the second emperor penguin ever recorded in New Zealand, Happy Feet was taken to Wellington Zoo on Friday after it began eating sand in a bid to cool down.

Emperor penguins in the Antarctic eat snow when they get too hot.

The zoo’s veterinary manager Lisa Argilla said the penguin, thought to be a young male, appeared to have come through the surgery intact, although she added: “He’s still not out of the woods.”

She said the bird, which is used sub-zero climes, was being kept in an air conditioned room carpeted with crushed ice to cool it in the relative warmth of New Zealand, where temperatures are currently about 10?C.

Wildlife experts have ruled out flying the penguin back to Antarctica as the frozen continent is in the midst of winter and engulfed by 24-hour darkness.

Argilla said that if it could be nursed back to health, the best option may be releasing Happy Feet into sub-Antarctic waters south of New Zealand in the hope that it will swim home.