The Most Famous, and Rich, Penguin on the Planet

Whenever it is, no matter the circumstances of how I’ve left this life, I’ve today decided that in my next I definitely want to return as a lost Emperor penguin, curiously stranded on a beach a couple thousand of miles from home…yet blessed with a fat bank account, tens of thousands of newfound friends, the best healthcare known to man and beast and my own hit television show.

Photo: New Zealand Department of Conservation

I’m modeling that future, of course, after the wandering Emperor dubbed “Happy Feet,” who a few weeks ago showed up on a New Zealand beach, more than 2,000 miles from his Antarctic home. The 10-month-old penguin had clearly taken a wrong turn on a Southern Ocean foraging trip. Soon after he was discovered, standing alone and shaking his head in bewilderment, it looked like curtains for the poor bird. Since swimming ashore, he’d been living on a diet of sand and driftwood, confusing it for snow, not a healthy option to his usual diet of krill.

Typically I’d be among those advising to let nature take its course, to encourage those who found him wandering on Peka Peka Beach 60 miles northwest of Wellington, to simply let the penguin fend for himself. “Let the strong survive,” etc., etc. The end, admittedly, would not a pretty picture. But in my experience, when man steps in to “aid” Mother Nature, something usually goes badly awry.

But now that I see Happy’s getting prime attention from doctors, has a Twitter account, a Facebook page and a Webcam monitoring his every move that has attracted 120,000 followers, I’m thinking he may be savvier than I first thought, smart enough to have earned that all-expenses-paid, $30,000 return flight to the seventh continent. (His fans are of a particularly rabid variety. After observing the pengie in a sleep trance one Facebook fan gushed: “At 11:20 p.m., Happy Feet was sound asleep with his left flipper sticking out. Five minutes later, he pulled in his left foot and flipper and just got up!:).”

I initially tried to resist the sappy story of the errant penguin, as I do those other “fish out of water” stories that make the TV news a few times a year, ranging from lost dolphins and whales wandering far up the wrong rivers to those misguided raptors that build nests high atop skyscrapers. But when I read that Happy’s spending his days lounging on a bed of ice at the Wellington Zoo in his permanent tuxedo, his every snore, waddle and feasting-on-fish slurry observed by tens of thousands of new friends from around the globe…I’m impressed by his apparent magnetism and will to survive.

Apparently, his short-life story is inspiring some in powerful ways: A Chicago woman identifying herself as Janet compared Happy to the hero of an O. Henry short story, assigning his example as life-affirming.“I feel as long as the penguin does well, I’ll do well,” she wrote. Hundreds gathered to watch a leading gastroenterologist from Wellington Hospital perform an endoscopy on the bird to clear his stomach of some of that irritating sand and driftwood he’d wolfed down. (Worries continue, though. “He’s definitely not out of the woods yet,” cautioned a zoo spokesperson in a post-surgery news conference.)

Happy’s plight may prove a boon for other critters at the Wellington Zoo; the same spokesperson has suggested the experience has been so positive it may well consider live streaming of other animals and their medical operations.

When first discovered, by an early-morning beach wanderer, most of scientific officialdom was against intervening on his behalf, worried that if he was returned home it could be with a host of new bacteria, putting the rest of the colony at risk. Swimming back home would be impossible. “Birds get lost. It happens all the time,” Kevin McGowan at Cornell University told ABC News. “But it’s natural that when something as charismatic as a penguin shows up, people want to help.

“There’s a war between people’s good intentions and ignorance about what’s best for the animal,” said McGowan. “What we think may be a benign intervention might not be.”

Environmentalists have jumped on the bandwagon too, suggesting perhaps the Emperor’s confusion was a result of ocean acidification, climate change or the overfishing of krill.

Today Happy’s future hangs in the balance. So far, $8,000 of the $30,000 necessary to fly him back home has been raised. One potential upside, or downside dependent on how his future plays out, is that they’ve already fitted him with a microchip that will allow scientists (and fanatics?) to follow his every movement…for the rest of life. (Didn’t Jim Carrey eventually whig out during a similar fictionalized scenario?) In one critic’s words, it’s in Happy’s flippers now.

(For the rest of my dispatches go to

Posted in Antarctica, New Zealand, Penguins

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