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New Zealand's start penguin gets endoscopy

By Nick Perry

Associated Press

Published: Monday, June 27 2011 2:40 a.m. MDT

An Emperor penguin which came ashore at Pekapeka beach is treated by vet staff at a zoo in Wellington, New Zealand, Friday, June 24, 2011. Fears over the health of the young Emperor penguin have prompted officials to move it to the local zoo.

NZPA, Ross Setford) NEW ZEALAND OUT, Associated Press

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — An Antarctic penguin that wound up stranded on a New Zealand beach and resorted to eating sand was recovering Monday after a very human treatment: an endoscopy performed by one of the country's top surgeons.

It may be months before the young emperor penguin — affectionately dubbed Happy Feet — fully recovers, and officials are uncertain about when or how it could return home about 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away.

Doctors at the Wellington Zoo guided a camera on a tube through the penguin's swollen intestines and flushed its stomach to remove the swallowed sand, which it apparently mistook for snow. Penguins eat snow to hydrate themselves during the winter.

To ensure the health of its newest star, the zoo brought in Wellington Hospital specialist John Wyeth — who usually operates only on humans — to help with the procedure, New Zealand Press Association reports.

Monday's surgery went well, and doctors removed about half of the remaining sand and several twigs from the bird's digestive system, zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said .

Happy Feet, nicknamed after the from the animated 2006 movie about a tap-dancing emperor penguin, was first spotted last week. Emperors typically spend their entire lives around Antarctica, rarely encountering humans.

Conservation official Peter Simpson says it could remain at the zoo for three more months recovering.

An X-ray is scheduled for Wednesday, but medical staff hope the aquatic bird will be able to pass naturally the rest of the debris blocking its system.

"It's positive news, but he's definitely not out of the woods yet," Baker said.

She said the penguin is now dining on fish slurry. She said it has been standing and appearing more active than when it first arrived.

The penguin is being housed in a room at the zoo chilled to about 46 degrees Fahrenheit (8 degrees Celsius), Baker said, and has a bed of ice to sleep on.

The bird was first spotted a week ago on a beach northwest of Wellington — the first time an emperor penguin has been seen here in 44 years. Emperors typically spend their entire lives in and around Antarctica and rarely encounter humans.

After first arriving at the beach, Happy Feet appeared healthy. But the bird began to eat large amounts of sand, apparently mistaking it for the snow.

What's next for Happy Feet still remains to be decided.

Peter Simpson, the program manager of diversity for the Department of Conservation, said he is meeting with penguin experts Wednesday at the zoo to consider options. He said it's not simply a matter of tossing the penguin back into the ocean off New Zealand's coast.

"There's no great rush to decide," Simpson said. "It will most likely need more medical work over the next three months."

Simpson said the penguin will likely remain at the zoo for that time while it recovers.

Gareth Morgan, a New Zealand investment adviser, has offered to transport the penguin back to Antarctica next February when he leads an expedition to the southern continent. But Simpson said that, while officials appreciate the offer, they may want to act before then.

Simpson said the penguin may be older than experts first thought — perhaps up to 2 1/2 years old rather than the initial estimate of 10 months. It stands about 3 feet (80 centimeters) high.

Experts still don't know if it's a male or female, Simpson said, although DNA samples should soon provide an answer.

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