Lost Penguin 'Happy Feet' Returns Home To Antarctica
August 30, 2011

Lost Penguin ‘Happy Feet’ Returns Home To Antarctica


Hundreds of people have visited Wellington Zoo in New Zealand to bid farewell to a lost emperor penguin that washed ashore 3,000 miles from home, desperately ill after consuming sand he had mistaken for snow.

Nicknamed Happy Feet, the penguin began his journey home to Antarctica on Monday after recovering from lifesaving surgery to remove 7 pounds of sand from his stomach.

"We have a bittersweet moment, I think, for the zoo," said Wellington Zoo chief executive Karen Fifield during an interview with ABC News.

"We are a bit sad to see Happy Feet go."

The 3-foot-tall penguin left the zoo aboard the research vessel Tangaroa for a four-day journey back to Antarctica, where he will rejoin his emperor penguin friends. He will travel in a purpose-built crate designed to keep him cold and comfortable, and will be fed a steady diet of fish along the way.

Happy Feet washed up on a New Zealand beach in June, and was the first emperor penguin in 44 years to be found so far from its home. He was relocated to the Wellington Zoo after falling sick from eating sand that zoo officials believe he likely mistook for snow.

The penguin underwent three surgeries during his two-month stay at the zoo, most recently one that removed approximately 7 pounds of sand, sticks and stones from his belly.

"We probably emptied about half the stomach. Hopefully, now with a bit of luck, the stomach will now start functioning on its own accord," gastroenterologist John Wyeth of Wellington Hospital told the Associated Press in June, following Happy Feet´s surgery.

The penguin regained about 18 pounds after his surgeries, thanks to a diet of fish milkshakes, and was given a clean bill of health by officials over the weekend.

"It's very exciting for me to get him to this point where we can release him," zoo veterinarian Lisa Argilla told ABC News.

Argilla and two other specialists will join Happy Feet on his trip home, and will release the penguin at about 51 degrees south, within his natural habitat.

More than 1,700 hundred people gathered at the zoo on Sunday to bid farewell to Happy Feet.

"Obviously, the world is attached to him. I am attached to him, and my team is attached to him," Argilla said.

"But it's the best thing for him."

Happy Feet has been fitted with a GPS tracker, and fans can follow his progress at the Wellington Zoo website, the Sirtrack website and the Our Far South website.

Argilla said that final decisions on precisely how Happy Feet will be released into the waters would be made onsite, depending on weather conditions and how the penguin responds.  Possible options include releasing him down a purpose-built slide off the stern ramp of the vessel, or using an inflatable boat.

The penguin will be old enough to find a mate and breed by next year, Argilla said.

“He'll hopefully bump into some penguins that he recognizes. Otherwise, he'll probably establish himself in another colony,” she said.