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Friday, September 2, 2011

Hitching a Ride: Happy Feet Heads Home

Cruisin', Penguin-Style
He's an emperor penguin, now cruising like a king. Happy Feet, the wayward penguin who drifted thousands of miles off-course in June, landing in New Zealand instead of his Antarctic feeding grounds, is on his way to a cool homecoming. Traveling in customized crate, climate controlled to stay frosty with 60 buckets of ice, the penguin who embraced Wellington, New Zealand, is getting a lift on the research vessel Tangaroa. The Tangaroa, New Zealand's biggest such ship, was scheduled to travel into the freezing southern waters, researching numbers of fish to set fishing quotas. It seemed the perfect way to get Happy Feet to a place where he'll find friends and food, and perhaps start a family.
Since he arrived on a New Zealand beach more than two months ago, Happy Feet has gone from lost traveler to local celebrity. Originally, observers left him alone, figuring he'd make his way back into the sea and turn around. But he remained on the shore, consuming sand that he mistook for snow. Poor guy gobbled more than six pounds of twigs and sand, which the staff at the Wellington Zoo removed after seeing how weak Happy had become. The caring staff nursed him back to health, keeping him very cool and serving perfect penguin meals, from plain delicious fish to seafood smoothies, which made Happy, well, happy.
As he gained weight and displayed a more confident attitude, the big question was what would happen to Happy Feet, and whether he was healthy enough to be released in his native waters. But Lisa Argilla, one of the vets who helped Happy get well, said he is "definitely a survivor," and has a stronger attitude
 than when he arrived at the zoo, listless, with poor feather condition. He's gained weight (lots of calories in those smoothies!) and he's been cleared for a return to the wild. He's now wearing a GPS tracker, so we all can monitor his progress. Karen Fifield, the zoo's chief executive, said that the 3-foot-tall penguin "brought a lot of hope and joy to people. His story has driven to the heart of what makes us human."
Almost Home!
Happy Feet's stay at the Wellington Zoo cost a bit more than a hotel, but the $28,000 was covered by donations from those who were charmed by the penguin. During his recovery, they followed his activities on a zoo web-cam. And on Sunday, just before Happy Feet said Bon Voyage to his temporary home, more than 1700 visitors hovered outside the glassed-in area where the zoo staff administered Happy's last medical checks.
Happy Feet boarded the Tangaroa on Monday, relaxing now and dining on fish. Sometime Thursday, when the ship reaches a latitude of 51 degrees south, skipper Richard O'Driscoll will cut the engines. Then, at the drop-off spot, Happy Feet will be released into the water, making a little splash via a makeshift canvas slide. His departure from the Wellington Zoo left his friends there with bittersweet feelings: sad to see him go, but hopeful he'll find new adventures in a cool clime, and will not return to New Zealand, no matter how much he enjoyed the hospitality. Happy Journey, Happy Feet!