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Ailing penguin offered a lift home

A young emperor penguin stranded in New Zealand has survived two medical procedures and now has an offer of a lift home.

However, the bird many are calling Happy Feet after the light-hearted 2006 film is not out of danger yet. It remains on an intravenous drip and faces another procedure on Monday to remove more sand from its digestive system.

If it does pull through, a businessman wants to take it by boat to Antarctica next February.

The bird arrived on Peka Peka Beach, about 40 miles north-west of Wellington on Monday, the first time in 44 years that an emperor penguin has been spotted in the wild in New Zealand. Typically, emperors spend their entire lives in and around Antarctica.

At first it seemed fine, but as the week progressed, it became more lethargic. It ate a lot of sand, apparently mistaking it for snow, which emperor penguins eat in Antarctica to hydrate themselves during the frozen winters.

On Friday, conservation officials decided its condition had worsened to the point where it was likely to die without intervention. So they transported it in a tub of ice to Wellington Zoo. The bird was given an anaesthetic on Friday while veterinarians flushed its throat and stomach with water to remove sand. A second procedure on Saturday involved more of the same, but the penguin's digestive system remains clogged. Mr Baker said staff want to give the bird a break on Sunday but plan a third flushing procedure on Monday.

New Zealand investment adviser Gareth Morgan, who is leading an expedition to Antarctica next February, offered the penguin a trip home on board a Russian icebreaker. But that will not be for another eight months. "Of course until that time Happy Feet will have to be cared for here in Wellington, where we're lucky enough to have a great community of wildlife experts, capable not just of pumping sand but also ensuring this wayfaring fellow is hosted appropriately until it's time to set sail," Mr Morgan wrote on his website.

Whether officials choose to take Mr Morgan up on his offer may depend on the penguin's health. Peter Simpson, a programme manager for New Zealand's Department of Conservation, said earlier in the week that there was a chance the bird might have picked up a disease in warmer climes which staff would not want to introduce back into the Antarctic colony.

If a trip back to the Antarctic does not pan out, there is always the offer of a more sheltered life. Lauren DuBois, assistant curator of birds at SeaWorld in San Diego, which has the only colony of emperor penguins in North America, said SeaWorld would be willing to step in to help. Thirty birds live there in a 25F (minus 4C) habitat which simulates Antarctica, with up to 5,000lb (2,270kg) of snow blown in every day.

Estimated to be about 10 months old, Happy Feet is thought to have hatched during the last Antarctic winter and may have been searching for squid and krill when it got lost. Experts have not yet determined whether it is male or female. Its rare foray north captured the public's imagination, with school groups, sightseers and news crews coming to the beach to see it and photograph it from a distance.

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