Wayward New Zealand penguin has 120,000 Web fans

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - August 4, 2011

The wayward emperor penguin, who was discovered on a New Zealand beach six weeks ago and will soon be returned to the wild, already boasts an online following of more than 120,000.

That's how many unique visitors have logged onto a Web camera set up to monitor his every movement. And it's expected thousands more will follow his progress after he's released in the coming weeks, when feeds from a GPS tracker unit attached to his back will be posted online.

And then there's all the chatter about him on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter.

It doesn't seem to bother his followers that Happy Feet, nicknamed after the 2006 animated movie, does little more than eat, sleep and occasionally waddle.

"At 11:20 p.m. in New Zealand, Happy Feet was sound asleep with his left foot and flipper sticking out," wrote one breathless Facebook fan. "Five minutes later, he pulled in his left foot and flipper and just got up! :)"

The penguin was discovered June 20 on Peka Peka Beach, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) northwest of Wellington and far from his Antarctic feeding grounds. He was moved to the Wellington Zoo four days later after becoming ill from eating sand, which he likely mistook for snow.

He has since gained weight and been given a clean bill of health to be returned to the ocean.

His unusual journey has captured worldwide interest. Local television station TV3 set up a webcam on June 30 in the small, ice-filled room at the zoo where Happy Feet has been recuperating.

The phone calls began coming in soon after.

The zoo sent a veterinarian to check the penguin late one night after TV3 was swamped by worried callers convinced Happy Feet had died, said zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker. It turned out the penguin was sleeping.

Then there was the email TV3 received from Janet in Chicago, who said she was ill but took "a lot of comfort in simply watching the penguin."

"It's kind of like O. Henry's story 'The Leaf,"' she wrote. "I feel as long as the penguin does well, I'll do well."

Gordon McBride, TV3's Wellington bureau chief, said he and a colleague came up with the idea of the webcam.

"When we asked the zoo, they said 'Yep. Why not."' McBride said. "It's such an unusual thing, and people like to see that."

Baker said that as a result of the "great response" to the webcam, the zoo is now considering live streaming other animals and the zoo's medical procedures.

Through a public campaign, the zoo has raised the $10,000 needed to cover the costs of housing Happy Feet, she said. It also has raised about $8,000 toward the cost of returning him to the sub-Antarctic ocean south of New Zealand, Baker said. That trip could cost up to $30,000.

She said the GPS tracker unit will likely stay attached only until Happy Feet molts next April and could come off sooner. The penguin also has had a microchip implanted in him which will be triggered if he roams near monitored colonies in Antarctica.

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