Wildbase to west coast waters for Taranaki penguin

Supervisor Wildlife Technician Pauline Nijman with Little Blue Penguin Taranaki

A little blue penguin injured in a predator attack was returned to its home waters off the coast of New Plymouth last weekend following a two-month recovery at Massey University’s Wildbase Hospital in Palmerston North.

Supervisor Wildlife Technician Pauline Nijman drove the rehabilitated adult female penguin from Wildbase to New Plymouth early Saturday for the mid-morning release off the Ngāmotu breakwater near where the animal was found in early January.

Ayla Adlam, 23, spotted the injured penguin, “swimming round and round in circles” when she was out fishing with her partner and reported it to the Department of Conservation because she could tell it was distressed. She was among the 20 or so locals who came to see the penguin returned back to the wild.

‘Little Blue Penguin Taranaki’ – as her Wildbase staff called her – suffered a “really large laceration to her leg, with a lot of deep muscle trauma”, Mrs Nijman says. The injury was likely the result of a dog attack.

Pauline Nijman about to release the penguin off the breakwater at Ngāmotu in New Plymouth

Treadmill treatment to prepare for return to wild

Treatment included anaesthetic and a radiograph to check for fractured bones associated with the wound, then extensive cleaning, antibiotics and pain relief to prevent infection. Once healed, the penguin underwent physiotherapy, including time on a specially designed treadmill, as she was not using her leg properly. Staff won’t release an animal unless they are confident it is capable of surviving in the wild, Mrs Nijman says.

Fitness training in a special deep-water pool where she practised diving and swimming, and regaining feather waterproofing, completed the treatment. “When they’re in hospital they are in a confined space, they’re healing and getting fat. There’s not a lot of fitness involved. And the wild is not a very kind place – you don’t want to be a couch potato then told you have to run a full marathon.”

Pauline Nijman looks on as the penguin swims out to sea after a two-month recovery at Wildbase Hospital

Praise for local in rescuing penguin

The penguin was hand-fed a “snack pack” of fresh fish to give her a head start in re-entering the wild before Mrs Nijman released her off breakwater rocks from a carry container into the Tasman Sea.

The release was an opportunity to remind the public of the threat to vulnerable wildlife when they let dogs off leashes in spaces where wildlife nest.  “A lot of people will say ‘my dog’s well-behaved and would never attack’. But when they get a whiff of penguin, it’s very tempting for any dog,” she says.

Mrs Nijman praised Ms Adlam’s efforts in triggering the penguin rescue. “A lot of people don’t stop to pick up injured wild life,” she told onlookers.

Nga Motu Marine Reserve Society member Barbara Hammonds, who was at the release, says her organisation has installed around 25 nesting boxes along the Taranaki coastline to provide spaces safe from predators for nesting seabirds.

Wildbase Hospital is New Zealand’s only dedicated wildlife hospital, providing medical and surgical care and rehabilitation to sick and injured native animals so they can be returned to the wild. The hospital contributes significantly to the conservation of many native species, including New Zealand’s unique and endangered takahē and kiwi.

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