Reflecting on ‘Happy-feet’ and wildlife rehabilitation

By - Wayne Linklater 01/12/2012

It is a magnificent feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie when we rescue, rehabilitate (rehab) and release a wild animal back to its home – the culmination of a considerable emotional, community, and scientific (largely veterinary) investment. Many of us not involved admire the people who rescue and rehab wild animals.

We assume that wildlife rehab is as good for wildlife as our feelings about it and the people involved. It is certain that sometimes it is – but not always. Experts debate the evidence for how often wildlife rehab is good and under what circumstances it is the right thing to do. Some suspect wildlife rehab is only rarely useful. Others devote their careers to it.

When researchers from Deakin University asked 134 bird experts from Australia and New Zealand what they thought were the most pressing conservation priorities, bird rescue and rehab did not even make the list of their 29 priorities [1].

Opinions however, even from experts, are less important than evidence. Our decisions in wildlife conservation, just as they are in other professions, like medicine, law or engineering, must be based on evidence to make sure we do the best we can with the resources we have. Evidence is gathered to answer questions and test hypotheses scientifically about the costs and benefits of rehabilitating wildlife. Like an accountant, we must balance the ledger of costs and benefits to ensure that there is a net good from the rehab effort. Where evidence is scant, we must gather it.

The emperor penguin ‘Happy-feet’ on Peka Peka beach, June 2011. Source: Ross Giblin, The Dominion Post.

Resolving the debate about wildlife rehab’s usefulness will either help us do it better or cause us to allocate our energy and resources to different conservation projects where we can achieve more. The emperor penguin, known as ‘Happy-feet’, who washed up on Peka Peka beach last year, rehabilitated at Wellington Zoo, and released into the southern Ocean north of Campbell Island, is a lesson in wildlife rehab and its usefulness.

‘Happy-feet’ came and went quickly in a flurry of excitement, intense media attention, business opportunism, and a little controversy.  The interest and attention have subsided but the important questions raised by the penguins arrival, rehab, release and disappearance remain to be answered.  With the benefit of hindsight, can we evaluate what were the benefits, if any, of investing in the penguin’s rehab and release? Does the evidence indicate that the investment in the penguin was the best way to spend our wildlife dollar? Was capitalising on community enthusiasm for Happy-feet the best way to engage the public in wildlife conservation?

The animal’s welfare and the conservation of its species or environment were the three reasons offered for rehabilitating Happy-feet. Over the next few weeks I will evaluate the evidence for each of these outcomes in turn – beginning in two weeks with claims that his rehabilitation increased support for conservation, particularly of Antarctica and the southern Ocean.

If another single, unusual, and unwell animal arrives in our midst, what would we do the same or differently?



1          Miller, K. K. & Weston, M. A. Towards a set of priorities for bird conservation and research in Australia: the perceptions of ornithologists. Emu 109, 67-74 (2009).


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