Penguins look cuddly, waddle along in a way people find appealing and have starred in a number of celebratory movies, from documentary to cartoon. Even the Batman villain The Penguin was so over-the-top that he had a certain goofy charm.
Respect for Darwinian evolutionary theory, however, suggests that efforts to repatriate one badly lost emperor penguin may not be doing much for the gene pool. But don't bother telling that to the people of New Zealand right now.
Happy Feet (named after a 2006 movie about tap-dancing penguins), turned up in June on a North Island beach, some 4,800 kilometres from home and ill from eating sand, evidently having mistaken it for snow. But it proved to be a lucky bird, pulled through after extensive rehabilitation and accumulated a reported 250,000 fans through a webcam during his convalescence on a diet of fish milkshakes at the Wellington Zoo.
Now it's on the way home in a custom-made crate like a giant's picnic cooler aboard a research ship that was going the same way. Some 1,700 people bid Happy Feet farewell at the zoo.
Everybody loves a happy ending, but we can't help wondering: what if Happy Feet comes back? All that adulation, along with the fish milkshakes and the individual medical care, may seem awfully appealing after few weeks in Antarctica.