Craig Mckenzie

Intensive care

Hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, on mainland Aotearoa are tipping towards extinction. This breeding season began with a bold, and desperate, call: take every chick off the nest and straight to hospital.

Written by       Photographed by Craig Mckenzie

In early October, Angelina Martelli starts nesting. The senior vet nurse at the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital can be spotted poking and pecking around wards and hallways. “You’ll see her collecting up bits and pieces. She finds things, trades things. Starts cleaning things,” says her colleague Emily Brewer, also a wildlife vet nurse. “The wards change, fill up with stuff.”

Coloured rolls of sports tape, clipboards and highlighters collect in piles. Stacks of folded towels cram a shelving unit from floor to ceiling. Four large whiteboards appear, marked up with grids. Martelli surveys her supplies. Puts out a plea on Facebook for ice-cream containers. Yet more towels.

Meanwhile, Brewer makes fish smoothies. It’s a job she started back in April, hustling seafood companies for discount deals on commercial-grade catch. She uses an industrial blender to prepare a five-fish combo in two-litre batches. Needs it thick, not too oily. “The sound changes when it’s ready,” she says. “It goes from slappy to smooth.” She sieves the pungent mix to rid it of bones and skin, then pours it into Martelli’s ice-cream containers. “I know that I definitely smell,” says Brewer. “But I’ve stopped noticing.” Her plan is to get 200 litres of fish slurry prepped and frozen, then she’ll feel ready.

Hoiho hatching season draws a disparate flock of bird lovers to the hospital. Alisha Sherriff, on slurry duty, usually looks after the aviaries at Dunedin Botanic Gardens. Maddy Whittaker works with kākāpō for DOC. Here she records details such as the volume of food consumed and how eagerly the chicks beg.

By the last week of October, they’re set. The whole hospital has been rejigged and jimmied for a massive emergency response at a tiny scale. Miniature incubators the size of microwave ovens are stacked on benches in an intensive-care unit that is no bigger than an office. The floor of a second small ward is lined with black plastic tubs, each padded with a towel. A giant chest freezer in the hallway is rammed with fish smoothie. There are 6000 mouth swabs in stock, hundreds of syringes and feed tubes, sterile and waiting. Extra vets and volunteers start arriving from Auckland Zoo, Wellington Zoo, Kelly Tarlton’s, the Dunedin City Council, Brisbane’s RSPCA Wildlife Hospital, and elsewhere.

Over the month of November, every single hoiho chick known to hatch on the mainland will come through these hospital doors. They’ll be taken from the nest, raced straight to admissions and then into intensive care. Each chick will be just a day or two old and weigh about a hundred grams. Some will arrive still in their eggs.

Everyone at the hospital is poised and anxious. They clear their calendars of all other commitments and retreat into a bird bubble. “We just don’t do a good enough job of talking about it,” admits hospital co-founder Jordana Whyte. “Most people have no idea how dire the situation is.”

[Chapter Break]

When Kelly Tarlton’s volunteers Jessica Kennedy and Kiara Lehnert arrive at Dunedin airport to join the emergency response, they walk past a stunning ceiling-high photograph of four adult hoiho, looking majestic at dusk. Then they stop to take pictures of two stuffed hoiho displayed in a glass case over the baggage carousel. The women are painfully aware that, despite the iconic and marketable status of these birds, the mainland population is in precipitous decline.

“We think there’s fewer than 140 breeding pairs on the mainland this year,” says Lisa Argilla, the hospital’s co-founder and senior veterinarian. “If we left their chicks in the nest, between 60 and 70 per cent of them would die.”

From that point, fewer than a quarter of chicks make it through to adulthood. The maths is simple: such diminishing percentages rapidly drop towards disaster.

On Argilla’s forearm is a huge hoiho tattoo. “They just grab at your heart,” she says with a shrug when I glance at it. Then she carries on reeling off the list of complex and interconnected reasons for the birds’ “terrifying” outlook: over-fished and warming seas; brutal competition for reduced food from barracouta; death by dog, fishing line, disease. All of it—climate, food supply and habitat—loops back to humans and our encroachment on the natural world. More frequent flooding, for example, creates more standing water, meaning more mosquitoes, and so now penguins are dying of avian malaria.

Argilla wrote her master’s thesis on this dense tangle of challenges facing hoiho. Soon after completing it, she met with Jordana Whyte, and over a burger and beer they cooked up the wildlife hospital idea, eventually getting it off the ground in a space provided by Otago Polytechnic in 2018. The following year, two viruses took out baby hoiho in the nest at an unprecedented rate. Chicks started showing up at the hospital, gasping, their lungs so dense and airless they sank rather than floated in the post-mortem liquid. Other chicks presented with mouth lesions that made eating so painful they quickly starved or dehydrated to death.

New arrivals are dubbed “babies”, as opposed to the “big kids” they’ll become in a few days. “This is the cute room,” says vet nurse Emily Brewer, tackling the babies’ admissions paperwork. Each chick will be fitted with a colour-coded flipper bracelet. And although they arrive hungry, they’ll be on fluids only for the first day. “What we do here works,” says hospital co-founder Lisa Argilla, waiting at left to dish out the welcome drinks.

At first, working with the Department of Conservation (DOC) and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, they tried treating sick chicks in the nest. The ones with the respiratory illness died no matter what; the ones with diphtheria stomatitis—the disease that caused mouth lesions—often died, but not always. Over several seasons, it became apparent that removing both sick and healthy chicks at a very young age, and caring for them in hospital somehow saved their lives. What’s more, despite their close proximity in the wards, the sick birds didn’t transfer disease.

“We learned, really by chance,” says Argilla, “that if we can get them into hospital before they’re five days old, treat any signs of lesions and get them weighing about 300 grams, then we can put them back in their nests and they’ll live.”

This season, the call was made to uplift every chick from all mainland hoiho nesting sites stretching from the Catlins to the Otago Peninsula. On Green Island, where nesting sites are hard to access and monitor, the decision was made to uplift eggs and try to hatch them at the hospital.

Argilla and Whyte refer to “uplifts” so casually that I remark on what a loaded word it is in human terms. They reply that it’s loaded in the bird world too. “At first we had people who were worried and resistant about such intense and large-scale intervention,” says Whyte. “But there’s a collective understanding now that, actually, this is what we’ve come to.”

Ngāi Tahu taonga species rep for hoiho, Puawai Swindells-Wallace, was new on the job when she first learned about the uplift plan. She instinctively felt it clashed with tikanga for keeping families together. “But as I learned about the massive risks of predation and disease, it seemed to me that tikanga had to adapt,” she says.

In the major Te Rūnanga o Ōtākou breeding area of Otago Peninsula, kaitiaki and Yellow-eyed Penguin trustee Hoani Langsbury says his whakapapa to the birds themselves dictated the action. “It’s no different to thinking of them as our mokopuna. It’s that same feeling of aroha and needing to provide them the same level of care,” he says. “While it’s never our preference as kaitiaki to have such a high human intervention, we know without it they’d be worse off.”

Whyte says the process of uplifting a chick is less traumatic than it sounds, certainly for the parents involved. Adult hoiho plunge so deep into parenting mode that they appear almost hypnotised on the nest. Rangers can simply tip them to one side, remove the chick, replace it with a rubber egg, then tip the parent back into position. “The parents literally don’t clock, or don’t care, that they’re going from live chick to dummy egg then back to chick again,” says Whyte. In a pinch, even a rock will do the trick, and hold an adult on the nest.

In hospital, the uplifted babies, too, seem happy with a dummy. They accept the comfort of toy parents, hand-made by local community group Stitch Kitchen, which feature a soft scooped-out belly they can snuggle into.

“If we can just hang on to these tiny babies at their most vulnerable stage,” says Argilla, “then maybe, somehow, the world will kick in and we can stop them going extinct.”

[Chapter Break]

In the middle of November, photographer Craig McKenzie and I spend a full day at the hospital. There are two adult patients checked in: a hoiho with feet bitten by a barracouta, and a kiwi who needs a check-up. Normally, the kiwi would be the star of the show, getting photographed for the hospital’s Facebook page, earning a story in the local paper. But he has no chance of the spotlight at this time of year. Even with the ward doors shut, there’s a fishy reek seeping out, and a faint but insistent chorus of little chirps and cheeps. Inside, 63 helpless and hungry hoiho chicks wait to be weighed, fed and changed.

Vet nurse Emily Brewer is the first to arrive on shift at 6.30am. She heads straight to the incubators in the ICU. “I just want to make sure everyone is happy and alive,” she says, then confesses that the fragility of the tiniest chicks makes her nervous. Inside the incubators, they’re just scraps of brown fluff, lying perfectly flat and silent, asleep. Brewer relaxes more during the check on her “bigger kids” in the ward next door. They’re heavier, more robust and awake. They cluster together in their tubs, calling in urgent peeps for their breakfast. Some will be discharged today.

More reinforcements start arriving—zoo vets and nurses, a St John’s ambulance officer from Palmerston North.

There’ll be two shifts of nine workers today, largely volunteers. Some have the support of their employers to be here; others are using up holiday allowance. “We get given lots of annual leave to help us manage fatigue,” says the ambulance worker, Christine Tan. “So, technically, I should be resting. But doing this fills my cup.”

The shift kicks straight into gear. “Don’t be alarmed if anyone is quite blunt with you, or tells you to get out of the way,” someone warns us in passing. They start stirring defrosted fish smoothie, drawing it up into syringes, warming the syringes in jugs of water, checking every measurement and action against a wall of whiteboards and the clock. First feed is 7.30am.

Even if the team manages to save touch-and-go chicks like Teoteo, above—“this is Band Aid stuff. These poor birds are going on to fledge in a world that humans have made so inhospitable.”

Martelli’s nesting has coalesced into a super-system of colour co-ordinated crisis management. Each smoothie syringe is colour-matched to sports tape on each chick’s flipper; different colour combinations signify age, and which chicks are siblings. There’s more colour-matching to clipboards that hold fresh daily charts for every patient. Chart information is then transferred to rows on whiteboards in the main administration room. “Aqua seems extremely chonky today, so I just need to double-check if that’s true,” says Tan, before she commits his update to whiteboard stage.

Eventually, after peak penguin is over, these key stats and information will be entered into a computer system. For now, it’s a mammoth manual undertaking, designed to ensure that, in the churn of so many chicks, every baby is discharged at the right weight, back to the right nesting site, placed back under the right parents.

“We started out using nail polish on their feet, but the smell of it was a problem. Then we moved to electrical tape, but there weren’t enough colours and it kept falling off,” says Martelli. “I think we’ve hit a winner with the sports tape. We’re the only ones in the world doing this, so we’ve just had to make it up as we go along. We don’t want to be the hospital giving babies back to wrong families.”

The doorbell rings and someone drops off a load of donated hand-towels. It’s now a few minutes before 7.30am, and without any apparent instruction, helpers move to the prep bench and pick up jugs of warm fish smoothie. “The food is walking down the hallway!” calls Brewer. “It’s go time.”

[Chapter Break]

The chick system is bespoke and fit for purpose, but the hospital building itelf, despite all the terminology of wards and intensive care, is not.

It’s set up in one wooden wing of what used to be a teacher’s college, and is now the vet training school at Otago Polytechnic. A sign in the toilet warns about haphazard plumbing—This is an old, tired building—and there’s no air-conditioning or temperature control. When chicks start arriving, staff bring in oil heaters to try to stabilise the heat and humidity.

“On a cold night, the incubators sometimes [struggle]. I’ve come in before and all the babies were shivering,” says Martelli. “I just cried.”

Everywhere are indications that the whole operation runs on the smell of an oily, donated rag. A scrub bay has been converted to a hatching room by sellotaping black rubbish bags over the windows. “It’s cheap and it works,” says Argilla. In the dark space, she hovers over this season’s remaining Green Island eggs. They’re tucked inside Ova-Easy, a machine designed for albatross eggs that’s been modified for the penguins with a steeper interior tilt. They’ve successfully hatched Gregg, Eggward, Eggatha and three others this year. Three eggs remain. Argilla shines a torch onto Meggan, concerned about the weird shape of the internal air sac. It suggests that hatching is close, and also that the chick is poorly positioned to break through. She tells me it doesn’t look great, but then murmurs to the egg, “Don’t worry, we won’t give up on you just yet.”

Unlike takahē, kiwi, kākāpō or albatross, there’s no centrally funded programme for hoiho protection. It’ll cost the hospital $316,000 to run the crisis response this year, on top of its ordinary expenses. About $100,000 of annual funding comes in from DOC, another $70,000 from Dunedin City Council, and the local Grand Casino chips in $50,000. The rest is cobbled together from smaller local sponsors, bequests and selling T-shirts. There are also one-off donations, like the one from Isla, who sent cash in a card that’s now pinned to the hospital wall. Isla and her sister raised the money themselves. In this envolope is $68, she wrote, then signed it, Your no.1 fan.

Vet nurses Ebony Sievers (centre) and Liz Friend (right) are both here from a wildlife hospital in Brisbane. With local volunteer Karina Sidaway, they record feeds and fill syringes with fish smoothie. Each syringe then goes into a bath until it’s nice and warm—just like from a parent penguin’s crop.
Meanwhile, more hungry mouths are about to emerge: by weighing the egg, and monitoring the growth of the air cell inside against the pencil lines, the team can estimate how close it is to hatching.

“We really need a hero, someone to step in and stabilise us for a few years,” says Whyte. “I worry that we’re going to look back in 10 years and realise yellow-eyed penguins went extinct on the mainland because 300K a year seemed too expensive.”

As she’s talking, the waste-collection man arrives. A woman who is with him sticks her head around the corner. She asks if she can come in and have a peek at the babies, but is told, “No, not now, I’m really sorry.” It sums up Whyte’s conundrum—she needs people to know what’s happening here, but the hospital is too cramped and busy, the chicks too delicate, to properly show the public what’s going on. Her big, out-of-reach dream is for a new facility, with a decent education centre built in.

[Chapter Break]

The chicks’ feeding schedule dominates the day. The littlest get five slurry feeds, bigger kids four, others move on to solids, and everyone gets two lots of meds. Any volunteer who forgets to watch the clock won’t miss the whiff of stirred fish smoothie, which announces the time.

In the ward, feeders crouch on the floor, taking chicks out of tubs and putting them onto fresh towels. One person charts; the other feeds. They use their fingers to encourage the chicks to stretch towards the syringe. These bigger kids wobble and peep, tumbling together for a turn, their eager open mouths a welcome sign of health. “We want them to stand and beg. If they’re blobs they can’t go back to Mum and Dad,” explains Brewer.

Over the course of their roughly week-long stay, each chick will guzzle a litre of slurry and put on about 200 grams. That means four fifths of Brewer’s smoothie hard work is converted to poo.

The hospital’s two washing machines churn through 20 loads of towels a day. Each chick gets a fresh towel on admission, at every feed, or at a moment’s notice if the tubs look grubby. Washed towels dry on ceiling racks and drape over stair rails. Mounds of them get loaded into the boot of a car for a laundromat drying mission to try to stay on top of it.

The chicks get daily mouth cleans too, to scrape away plaque that forms when the stomatitis lesions harden and calcify. It’s a job for Argilla, who kneels to attend to them one by one, crunching down onto a toe she broke while kicking a jammed lawnmower. There’s no time to indulge the pain. “Hey, bubby, you’re such a good baby, so big now! You’re doing so well, bub,” she patters, and seems to use about half of the 6000 swabs in stock to deal with just one mouth. As the cleaning progresses, she steadies the chicks in her hand, or against her stomach. They can barely walk and she wants to keep it that way. Too much roaming about in hospital and they’ll get cocky, won’t stay put and out of danger once they’re back home.

Of the hospital chicks that return to the nest, only about 20 per cent will survive all the way to adulthood. But, as everyone here keeps saying, 20 per cent of the expected 200 chicks is far better than 20 per cent of the roughly 50 which would otherwise make it through their first week in the wild.

Volunteers Jan Carter and Robbie Verhoef ensure a chick recently returned to the nest is still putting on weight. “I’m extremely worried about what’s coming next,” says Jordana Whyte. “Avian flu is coming. They’re on a knife edge as it is.”

“Everything seems so busy and hectic because we’re in a small space, and it’s such a lot of chicks to hand-feed at one time. But for a whole species, it’s still a shockingly small number,” sighs volunteer Kristen Buckley. She’s usually a bird keeper at Wellington Zoo and has taken three weeks’ annual leave to be here. “They have so much coming at them. But I guess you have to focus on what you can do, and think, ‘I’ll do that’, otherwise you’d get too down.”

Like many of the volunteers, Buckley is bunking with a hospital staff member to cut down the costs of the trip. In the break after feeding, she trades notes with the others about cheap meals at The Bowling Club, just $4 for a hearty vegetarian main. The rest of the break chat is bird chat. Whose mouth is looking nice enough for discharge? Who’s seen the new kākāpō merch? There are stories about notable past patients, like super-breeder Fatty Moana from Aramoana. “She’s gone now—she got a bad hock injury and had to be euthanised,” says Martelli. “But she bred every year and she bred healthy chicks. The perfect penguin. We should have held a state funeral for her.”

As the crew chats, two new chicks arrive, and the volunteer admitting them slumps a little. It’s mid-afternoon, and everyone is getting through it on a shared tray of supermarket afghans and a box of muesli bars. New admissions mean more paperwork. But one chick is already dead. The other is so wee, at just 65 grams, that he causes a burst of chatter around the hospital. He’s the second smallest they’ve ever seen, so they decide he needs a name, not just a colour reference. “Maybe don’t name him right away, then he’s guaranteed to die,” worries Lydia Uddstrom, a DOC vet who usually works with kākāpō and takahē. But the others can’t help themselves and settle on Teoteo, a reo Māori adjective meaning “to be small”, especially in relation to birds. Argilla allows McKenzie 30 seconds for photos, then whisks Teo into an incubator. She writes LISA ONLY in marker on the glass door.

Success. A chick back with its parent and doing well. “They love their babies so much,” says Kristen Buckley, a bird keeper from Wellington Zoo who’s flown in to help. “When I worked at Kelly Tarlton’s I’d find our penguin dads holding chunks of ice on their feet, caring for the ice chunks. When it melted, they’d be looking down, like, ‘Where did my chick go?’” The dream, says senior vet nurse Angelina Martelli, is to see this chick with a nest of its own in three years.

Soon there’s another set of arrivals, this time from Boulder Beach. Martelli starts a new chart. The chicks have mild, manageable signs of stomatitis.

“The dream is to see them on a nest in three years’ time, breeding,” she says, as she gives them initial fluids and checks respiratory rates. Despite the steady number of new patients today, overall it’s looking like nest numbers for the season will be down on last year. Martelli chats with the DOC delivery ranger about the state of play, and one of the fresh admissions gets the right idea—he shuffles down under the paperwork that is now the key to his survival.

The second shift of the day starts arriving. Everyone stands and stares at the whiteboards, then gets to work. Another waft of smoothie. There are three more feeding slots, a mouth cleaning, weighing, meds and solids, endless dirty towels and dishes to deal with before the day is done.

Compared to everything else the chicks require, the discharge process is brisk. A ranger turns up with a plastic picnic basket. Martelli brings out two chicks at a time, and puts her system to one last test. She checks flipper tape against clipboard. Yes, they’re siblings. Yes, they belong in an Okia nest. The chicks are tucked into a towel in the basket, and they’re off. “Bye, bye,” Martelli calls. As they’re carried away, she has just one last instruction for them: “Live!”