"Lost" penguin perks up in New Zealand after surgery

Tue Jun 28, 2011 1:43am EDT
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WELLINGTON (Reuters Life!) - A young Emperor penguin that washed up on a New Zealand beach last week after straying thousands of kilometers from home was perking up on Tuesday, a day after hundreds of people watched it undergo endoscopic surgery to remove sand from its stomach.

The bird, nicknamed "Happy Feet" by locals, became the focus of national attention after it turned up on a beach some 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from its Antarctic home -- only the second Emperor penguin ever to appear in New Zealand.

John Wyeth, a leading gastroenterologist at Wellington Hospital, offered his services for the endoscopic procedure, in which a camera was inserted into the bird's stomach.

"Hopefully, with a bit of luck the stomach will now start functioning on its own accord," Wyeth said after the procedure, the bird's third under anesthetic in four days.

Penguins normally eat snow to stay hydrated but veterinarians believe "Happy Feet," named after the main character in a popular recent movie, became confused and ate sand instead.

So far three kg (6.6 pounds) of sand have been removed from its stomach, but more remains. The penguin will now be given a mixture of blended oily fish and laxatives to help it naturally pass what is left, veterinarians said, adding that the bird is regaining its strength.

"Yesterday he actually punched me in the stomach with his flipper," said Lisa Argilla, a veterinarian at Wellington Zoo.

"He's been calling, so it's really awesome to hear that Emperor penguin call for real and not just on a documentary," she told TVNZ.

A DNA test has been conducted to determine the bird's sex and the New Zealand Department of Conservation is discussing how to return it to its natural home. But experts believe it will be months before it is strong enough to make the journey.

Emperor penguins are the largest penguin species and can weigh up to 30 kg (66 pounds). The last sighting of an Emperor penguin in New Zealand took place in 1967.

(Reporting by Reuters Television; editing by Elaine Lies)

<p>Visitors watch an emperor penguin nicknamed "Happy Feet" at the Wellington Zoo June 25, 2011. Usually found in Antarctica, the penguin attracted worldwide media attention when it arrived on a New Zealand beach a week ago. It underwent surgery on Monday at Wellington Zoo to remove sand and sticks from its stomach. Picture taken on June 25, 2011. REUTERS/Wellington Zoo/Handout</p>