Healing penguins in Christchurch's suburbs

by Ellen Rykers / 09 September, 2018

“Rescue penguins” are being nursed back to health by Christchurch couple Kristina Schutt and Thomas Stracke. Photo/Victoria Birkinshaw.

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For the past eight years, volunteer wildlife carers Kristina Schutt and Thomas Stracke have looked after penguins in peril.

The backyard looks like any other well-kept garden in suburban Christchurch – but this one houses some unusual guests. Since 2010, intensive-care nurses Kristina Schutt and Thomas Stracke have dedicated their spare time to caring for starving and injured penguins.

During last summer’s breeding season, they looked after 14 birds, including a critically endangered yellow-eyed penguin, white-flippered penguins endemic to Banks Peninsula, and a little blue penguin – the world’s smallest species – from Franz Josef.

Originally from Germany, the couple first travelled to New Zealand in the early 90s. “We visited the Ōamaru penguin parade, where the little blue penguins come ashore to the colony at dusk, and we’ve been in love with these little ones ever since,” says Stracke. In 2002, the couple decided to make their OE permanent by settling in New Zealand, the “penguin capital of the world”.

“We never thought we’d actually be able to have penguins in our backyard,” says Stracke. But in 2010, they met a local bird carer, who agreed to entrust them with ailing penguins.

Schutt and Stracke have a permit from the Department of Conservation for their rehabilitation work, and their home in Sockburn is kitted out with a hospital-grade storage unit, predator-proof cages, paddling pools, a freezer full of fish and a dedicated fish-smoothie blender (the couple’s hungry house guests can consume as much as 10kg of fish in total per week).

Each bird has backyard lodgings with a towel to sleep on, while the weakest stay indoors. If it’s hot, they’re given a complimentary ice block and cooling fan. Fluff-ball chicks need to be syringe-fed every two hours, and caring for sick penguins requires special veterinary skills, which the pair acquired at a seabird rescue centre in South Africa. “We learnt tube-feeding, taking bloods, subcutaneous injections and washing oiled birds,” says Stracke. But the intensive labour required, not to mention the lack of sleep, is all worth it, adds Schutt. “It’s so nice when you see the chicks grow.”

Rehabilitated birds are released back into the wild, where their fate is unknown. But to the delight of Schutt and Stracke, some previous patients, sporting identifying leg bands, have returned to the local Harris Bay colony to raise chicks of their own.

Not all penguins survive – although this year Schutt says they’ve had a high recovery rate. Some “second-chance birds” end up at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch – including a white-flippered penguin called Hayley, who is blind in one eye.

Fluffy the yellow-eyed penguin is one of the couple’s success stories. The lone surviving yellow-eyed chick on Banks Peninsula this season, Fluffy arrived underweight and suffering from avian malaria. After nearly two months in their care, he’d doubled his weight and swapped his downy coat for sleek swimming plumage. “We thought he was a goner,” says Stracke.

Fitted with a microchip, Fluffy is now ready to head out to sea. “It’s quite emotional when you’ve had them for six or seven weeks and you see them shoot off into the water. You can’t not love penguins.” 

You can donate to Christchurch Penguin Rehabilitation on Givealittle.

This was published in the July 2018 issue of North & South.

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