Penguin distant from ocean

Alexandra veterinarian Sue Robb with the injured rockhopper penguin after operating on it last week. The bird is recovering well and should be released to head back to the Antarctic next month. Photo supplied.
Alexandra veterinarian Sue Robb with the injured rockhopper penguin after operating on it last week. The bird is recovering well and should be released to head back to the Antarctic next month. Photo supplied.
Move aside, Happy Feet. This is a story about an adventurous rockhopper penguin who got lost on the way to the Antarctic and ended up in sunny Alexandra.

True story -there really was a penguin in Central Otago, about as far from the coast as it's possible to get in this country.

Central Vets Ltd senior small animal veterinarian, Sue Robb, operated on the 6-month-old injured rockhopper at the Alexandra clinic last week and its arrival caused quite a stir.

''The staff all came and had a look at it - it's the closest most of them have ever been to a penguin,'' Ms Robb said. It was found on a North Otago beach about a month ago with an injured foot, Katiki Point Charitable Trust honorary ranger Rosalie Goldsworthy said. She runs a penguin hospital at the point, near the Moeraki lighthouse, and the rockhopper ended up in her care.

''It was injured at sea. Some creature tried to kill it and got it by the foot - there were big tooth-marks around its ankle.''

It was very unusual to find rockhoppers on our shores and they were rarer than other crested penguins, Mrs Goldsworthy said. The nearest breeding site was Macquarie Island, halfway between New Zealand and the Antarctic. She and Ms Robb have been friends for about 15 years and have worked together on wildlife before, so she asked for the vet's advice.

''Here I usually deal with companion animals - cats and dogs - but in the past I've operated on penguins and other wildlife, and on all kinds of birds from a pukeko through to a sulphur-crested cockatoo,'' Ms Robb said.

The operation to remove the penguin's foot took about 20 minutes and no special equipment was needed, although ''we did turn up the air-conditioning so it wasn't too warm''.

She saw treating wildlife as her ''social responsibility'' and said there was no charge for the operation or care of the bird.

'' I love the idea of being able to treat a rare bird like this and have it return to the wild,'' Ms Robb said. The penguin is recuperating well back at the penguin hospital and was standing up on its stump, and balancing well, shortly after the operation, Mrs Goldsworthy said.

''It's very special and has a lovely nature - not aggressive, but it is assertive. If it doesn't like something, it'll let you know.''

''Sue says it will take about a month to heal and then it'll be heading south for its next adventure. I have every faith it will get back to Antarctica.''

Penguins use their wings for propulsion through the water and their feet as rudders and it was already adapting to with changes to its stance.

''You can tell when they're getting better - they get grumpy and start to jump against the pen when they're ready to leave,'' she said.

The trust is a charity and relies on donations to fund its work. There are 13 penguins of four different species in the hospital.

- lynda.van.kempen@odt.co.nz