Lost Penguin Recovering From Third Medical Procedure to Flush Out System

Expert says there's "some hope" it will survive and be released into wild.

ByABC News
June 27, 2011, 6:59 AM

June 27, 2011 — -- With a third medical procedure under its, er, flipper, the emperor penguin that found itself on the sandy beaches of New Zealand last week, thousands of miles from its snowy home in Antarctica, is now recovering at the Wellington Zoo.

"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. The penguin had undergone two medical procedures this weekend to flush out its digestive system, which remained clogged with sand and twigs.

Wyeth, who usually operates only on humans, was asked by the zoo to assist in the surgery.

The penguin, nicknamed "Happy Feet," had eaten twigs of driftwood and lots of sand, which experts said it likely mistook for the snow it consumes for hydration in Antartica. Though an X-ray was planned for Wednesday, hospital staff said it hoped the rest of the debris would pass naturally.

The penguin, whose sex had yet to be determined by DNA tests, was found Monday and had been left to fend for itself until conservationists monitoring its condition stepped in Friday.

Dyan deNapoli, a penguin expert and author of "The Great Penguin Rescue," told ABC News today that the penguin would likely need another surgery and months of rehabilitation before it was released.

"It sounds pretty tenuous," she said of the penguin's condition. But "there is some hope. Maybe it'll be fine."

After today's surgery, veterinarian Lisa Argilla said that the penguin had been "calling."

"His demeanor is good," she said, according to the AP. "Yesterday, he actually punched me in the stomach with his flipper."

Peter Simpson, the program manager of diversity for New Zealand's Department of Conservation, told the AP that he planned to meet with penguin experts Wednesday to consider the bird's options.

On Saturday, New Zealand investment adviser Gareth Morgan offered "Happy Feet" a seat on a Russian icebreaker to Antarctica, where he planned to lead an expedition.

DeNapoli said that although releasing an animal back into the wild was ideal, zoo staff would have to test the penguin carefully and clear it of any diseases and parasites it might have picked up during its travels.

"It's a tremendous risk you don't want to take," she said about possibly introducing foreign pathogens to the isolated Antartica colony of emperor penguins.

Argilla said that the zoo's staff would not be shipping the penguin off too soon, and that it would likely stay for three months.

"It's not going to be anything we do fast," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.