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Stranded penguin given helping hand

A young emperor penguin that turned up on a New Zealand beach will not be getting a free ride all the way back to its Antarctic home - but the bird's human friends will at least help it get a little closer.

The penguin - Happy Feet - attracted intense interest after being spotted on North Island's Peka Peka beach, about 2,000 miles from its natural habitat in Antarctica.

Its health quickly declined when it began eating sand and sticks, but it is beginning to recover.

Wildlife officials have been trying to figure out how the 3ft bird will return home.

They initially dismissed the idea of transporting it to Antarctica because of logistical difficulties and the fear that it could transmit infections picked up during its New Zealand vacation to other penguins.

On Wednesday, an advisory group headed by the Department of Conservation decided officials will help the penguin get part of the way home by releasing it into the Southern Ocean, south east of New Zealand, and letting it swim the rest of the way.

The department's biodiversity spokesman Peter Simpson said: "The reason for not returning the penguin directly to Antarctica is that emperor penguins of this age are usually found north of Antarctica on pack ice and in the open ocean."

The area where it will be released is on the northern edge of the region where young emperor penguins are known to live, but Mr Simpson added he was unsure how far the penguin would have to swim before reaching its final destination.

Happy Feet, named after the 2006 animated film, was discovered on Peka Peka beach last week - the first time an emperor penguin has been seen in the wild in New Zealand in 44 years. Experts are not sure if it is male or female.

The penguin is recovering well at Wellington Zoo, where it underwent a medical procedure on Monday to help flush out the sand it swallowed after apparently mistaking it for snow. Doctors managed to remove about half the sand from its digestive system, and zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said X-rays showed the penguin was passing the rest of the sand naturally.

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