Lost Penguin in New Zealand Has to Find Its Own Way Home

Emperor penguin made a 2,000-mile wrong turn in Antarctica and is on its own.

June 22, 2011, 11:52 AM

June 22, 2011 — -- It looks as if the Antarctic emperor penguin that made a 2,000-mile wrong turn and wound up in New Zealand is going to have to find its own way home.

The image of the lone penguin on the beach has captured hearts around the world, but wildlife officials in New Zealand said they were going to let "nature take its course" when it came to the penguin's survival.

This seemingly harsh solution has people asking why they the bird can't be rescued and brought home.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation told the Associated Press that transporting the penguin could spread infections if the penguin caught a disease from swimming through warmer climates. Attempting to return the bird to its colony in Antarctica could risk infecting the rest of the penguin population.

Logistically, the trip would also be extremely difficult, since it is winter in Antarctica, which means it is dark almost 24 hours a day. Attempting to travel there this time of year could be dangerous.

"Birds get lost. It happens all the time," Kevin McGowan at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology told ABCNews.com. "But it's natural that when something as charismatic as a penguin shows up, people want to help."

The instant celebrity has drawn television crews, photographers, school groups and artists to Peka Peka Beach on New Zealand's North Island. This is only the second time a wild emperor penguin has been spotted in New Zealand; the last time was in 1967.

Thanks to movies like "March of the Penguins" and "Happy Feet," penguins have become adorable superstars, and the public is crying out to save the penguin.

McGowan said that while the impulse to rescue the penguin is only natural, moving the bird might ultimately be worse for the lost creature.

"This is a continuing problem for those of us dealing with these incidents. There's a war between people's good intentions and ignorance about what's best for the animal," McGowan said. "This is an animal that's out of its environment, so we don't know how it'll respond to anything. What we think may be a benign intervention might not be."

Bill Eichbaum, the vice president for Arctic and marine policies at the World Wildlife Fund said the lost penguin might not be a random accident.

Abnormalities such as climate change, ocean acidification or krill fishing could make people responsible for the bird's potentially stress-induced confusion.

Citing cases of manatees showing up on the East Coast of the United States or polar bears that swim toward the open ocean instead of the shore, Eichbaum said the emperor penguin was not the first Arctic animal to become confused and lose its way.

"In terms of intervention, letting nature take its course is usually the best response," Eichbaum told ABCNews.com. "But if it's because of a situation possibly induced by people, there is a serious responsibility ... to consider intervention."

Eichbaum said close observation of the penguin would be necessary to determine the best course of action. Emperor penguins can grow as tall as 4 feet and weigh more than 75 pounds. The penguin lost in New Zealand has been estimated to be 10 months old. Experts said it may have been looking for krill or squid when it got lost, according to the AP.

The penguin has reportedly been eating wet sand, mistaking it for snow, which could prove unhealthy, since sand does not dissolve in the stomach. Peter Simpson at New Zealand's Department of Conservation said the penguin appeared healthy and could go several weeks without another meal, which could buy it some time in getting home.

For now though, this penguin's fate is in its own hands, or flippers.

"It really has a better chance of surviving if we don't mess with it," McGowan said. "It's a rough world out there, but he can swim a long way and do a lot out there. If you took him to a tank in the zoo, is that better?"

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