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Happy Feet Not So Happy

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Shrek died last month.  Not green ogre Shrek – he’s still happily living in Ogre Swamp as far as I know – but Shrek the sheepShrek became a celebrity in New Zealand after he was found in 2004 after six years of avoiding being shorn by hiding out in a cave in the hills of Central Otago.  His first shearing was nationally televised, with his fleece weighing in at 60 lbs – enough wool for 20 suits (an average Merino sheep such as Shrek has a fleece of about 9.9 lbs).  Shrek went on to meet the Prime Minister, have children’s books written about him, and was shorn on an also-famous iceberg that was floating off the coast of Dunedin.  He was about 16 years old when he died.

Photo of "Happy Feet" the emperor penguin, taken at Peka Peka on June 22, 2011 by Juli Ryan (Flickr).

Not long after Shrek’s death, however, New Zealand had a new animal celebrity: Happy Feet the juvenile emperor penguin from Antarctica.  Happy Feet was spotted on June 20, 2011, on Peka Peka beach, on the west coast of the North Island about an hour’s drive north of Wellington.  He (DNA testing has confirmed that he is male) had swum more than 2,000 miles from Antarctica.  I guess, like Mumble in the movie Happy Feet, he just kept on swimming…

Of course, poor Happy Feet couldn’t just stay hanging out on a New Zealand beach – eventually he would need to get home.  At first, the Department of Conservation thought to leave him alone and he’d leave on his own accord, but then he started eating sand – mistaking it for the snow that emperor penguins eat to stay cool and hydrated – and his condition deteriorated. The Wellington Zoo took him in and he underwent two operations to remove the sand and twigs that were making him sick. But what to do after he got better? The zoo didn’t have a permanent place for him, and there were no other suitable facilities in New Zealand either.  What about hitching a ride on a boat heading south to Antarctica? Actually, there aren’t many boats going down there at this time of year (it’s dark 24 hours a day at the moment), plus the logistics would be tricky, and juvenile emperor penguins don’t really live on mainland Antarctica anyway – they chill out on pack ice and in the water to the north of the continent.

There were also legal questions that arose in the discussions of what to do about Happy Feet.  New Zealand is a signatory to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and has incorporated it into domestic law through the Antarctica (Environmental Protection) Act 1994.  The Protocol seeks to protect the unique environment and ecosystems of Antarctica, with Article 4 of Annex II to the Protocol (and section 28(1) of the legislation) stipulating that no “non-native” animals are allowed to be taken into Antarctica without a permit.  Furthermore, each party must take precautions to “prevent the introduction of micro-organisms (e.g., viruses, bacteria, parasites, yeasts, fungi) not present in the native fauna and flora.”  It has therefore been stated that, even though Happy Feet is native to Antarctica, a special permit, which would be issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, would be required to take him back to ensure the Protocol isn’t breached.

The New Zealand authorities convened a special committee – the Penguin Advisory Committee – made up of experts from the Department of Conservation, Wellington Zoo, Massey University, and Te Papa (the national museum – who have also been blogging about Happy Feet).  Last week the committee decided that the preferred option was to give Happy Feet a partial ride home – he’d be released into the sea off the south coast of New Zealand’s South Island once he’s in better shape for the trip back.  This area of the Southern Ocean is the northernmost part of the known range of emperor penguins.

The experts cautioned that there would be many risks involved in Happy Feet’s future, including his transportation, his ability to make the distance to Antarctica, the risk that he picked up micro-organisms during his long swim or his stay in New Zealand that could be spread to a future mate and others in a colony, and he might also not be able to find his original colony as they can be huge distances apart.

The risks certainly aren’t small – one New Zealand penguin expert recounted an incident in the 1970s where a virus struck a colony of adelie penguins (the little ones that Mumble becomes friends with in the movie), killing 65 per cent of baby penguins in a colony of thousands.

Clearly this is an extremely difficult situation for Happy Feet and the Penguin Advisory Committee to be in.  Hopefully everything works out and I’ll be able to provide a happy update on Happy soon (much like in the case of the Library’s own feathered celebrity which was eventually freed after getting trapped in the Main Reading Room).  The world famous penguin is certainly getting a lot of support!  For now, you can watch live streaming of Happy Feet online to see how he’s doing.

Comments (2)

  1. fabuloso que lea esto acerca de los pinguinos, justo en los años 70, muchos pinguinos empezaron a aparecer en lugares a mas de 3000 millas nauticas, de su lugar de origen, cada cierto tiempo migran pero algunos se quedan solos y viven por muchos años en lugares mas calidos, sin embargo muchos de estos pinguinos despues de muchos años desaparecen otra vez ya que la marea se los lleva de nuevo quizas a su lugar de origen,la unica forma de averiguarlo seria censando a los pinguinos perdidos a ver a donde se los lleva la marea de regreso con uno de esos localizadores quizas mas pequeños de lo que se les coloca a los tiburones.

  2. Are there any updates as to how Happy Feet is doing now? What eventually happened to him when he was set free?

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