WELLINGTON, New Zealand – A stranded emperor penguin was moved to a zoo Friday and scheduled for surgery as the young bird's health worsened in the New Zealand winter that is much warmer than its species' Antarctic home.
The penguin appeared healthy after it was first spotted Monday but has appeared more lethargic as the week progressed, and officials feared it would die if they didn't intervene.
The penguin has been eating sand and small sticks of driftwood on North Island's Peka Peka Beach. It may have mistaken sand for snow, which it eats for hydration in the Antarctic climate where emperors usually spend their entire lives.
Wellington Zoo staff said the bird was dehydrated and suffering heat exhaustion. High temperatures in Wellington recently have been about 50F (10 Celsius).
Zoo vet science manager Lisa Argilla said the bird was spirited and zoo staff didn't want it to suffer. They manually tried to clear debris from the bird's throat, but it still seemed to blocked, so the staff scheduled surgery for Saturday.
"I'm hoping its just a piece of driftwood that we can reach down and pull out," Argilla told the Dominion Post newspaper.
For the penguin's journey to the zoo, three experts lifted it from the beach into a tub of ice and then onto the back of a truck for the 40-mile (65-kilometer) trip, said one of the participants, Colin Miskelly, a curator at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand.
Ideally, the bird will heal enough it could be released into the wild. But returning it to Antarctica, about 2,000 miles (3,200-kilometers) away, wasn't feasible. There is no transportation to the continent in the harsh winter.
Miskelly also noted no facilities in New Zealand were designed to house an emperor penguin long-term. It's the tallest and largest penguin species and can grow up to 4 feet (122 centimeters) high and weigh more than 75 pounds (34 kilograms).
Often sick birds require rehabilitation for a month or two before being released, zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker said, adding that some creatures with severe injuries remain in captivity.
The rare venture north by the Antarctic species captured public imagination. Sightseers came to the beach to see the bird and photograph it from a distance.
Christine Wilton, the local resident who discovered the penguin Monday while walking her dog, was back at the beach Friday to say goodbye.
"I'm so pleased it's going to be looked after," she said. "He needed to get off the beach. He did stand up this morning, but you could tell that he wasn't happy."
The penguin is estimated to be about 10 months old and is about 32 inches (80 centimeters) high. Experts haven't yet determined whether it is male or female.
It has been 44 years since an emperor penguin was last spotted in New Zealand.