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Passion for penguins . . . Kathryn Johnson's drive to protect yellow-eyed penguins was sparked while working as a veterinarian in Oamaru. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Kathryn Johnson just keeps getting drawn back to Oamaru.

Presenting her research on yellow-eyed penguins at last month’s Oamaru Penguin Symposium via Zoom, Ms Johnson felt as if she had come full circle, having first worked with the penguins in Oamaru in 2015.

The Adelaide-based vet got her first job as a veterinarian in Oamaru, at The Veterinary Centre, after graduating from university.

During her 18-month stint in Oamaru as a mixed-animal vet, she helped provide care for yellow-eyed penguins at the Penguin Rescue rehabilitation centre at Katiki Point.

“We got to see a lot of birds that had been munched on, essentially, by predators,” she said.

“There was a strange, perplexing mystery about it, which is kind of what led me to this research project.”

Sharks and sea lions were known predators of yellow-eyed penguins, but it was believed that barracouta also attacked the birds. Barracouta attacks had been perplexing pathologists and the mystery was something that piqued Ms Johnson’s interest.

When she left Oamaru, she moved home to Australia, but was drawn back to New Zealand about a year and a-half later to do a clinical residency training programme through Massey University.

As part of her training, she had to complete a research project and the mystery of barracouta attacks was still on her mind.

“Spoiler alert – I didn’t solve it,” she said.

“But it led me down a path of trying to investigate it further by flying barracouta from Dunedin to Palmerston North to take measurements of their teeth, look at whether there’s any kind of correlation to the wounds.”

It was natural for yellow-eyed penguins to face predators and the species was in decline for various reasons.

But for veterinarians working with wildlife, it was beneficial to know if their work was worthwhile, she said.

“We want to make sure we’re getting the best outcomes we can for those birds – and also trying to work out trends.

“It would be nice to think that we can try and reverse the [decline] . . . but it starts with information.”

Ms Johnson worked alongside ecologists who were monitoring yellow-eyed penguins long-term to find out what happened to injured birds after they were released from hospital.

Research revealed about 30% of birds that had been released attempted to breed again.

Through the combined rehabilitation, veterinary, research and monitoring efforts, involving many wildlife groups working together, Ms Johnson hoped outcomes for yellow-eyed penguins could be improved, and their decline reversed.

“And it’s through conferences such as the Oamaru Penguin Symposium . . . that we can share our knowledge, lessons and ideas.

“As a collective community, we’ve developed many techniques and solutions to problems, and continue to refine these in order to enhance our conservation effort, and protect these birds for future generations to appreciate.”

Ms Johnson’s research, which she hoped to publish by the end of the year, also led her back to Oamaru last year.

Working alongside an ecologist, she caught penguins at Bushy Beach to examine the scars on their feet.

“There’s just been this pull back to Oamaru, which I don’t think I expected, but I have been back so many times.

“I think it’s certainly been an interesting adventure for me.”

As well as being led to her research on yellow-eyed penguins, she learned a lot of life skills from living and working in Oamaru.

New Zealanders, especially those in rural areas, were very practical thinkers, she said.

“I had to learn a lot of practical skills and think about what’s really possible and deal with things on the fly as a veterinarian.

“In some ways, the things I learned there were more those life skills.”

Ms Johnson has had a lifelong passion for wildlife. At age 11, she was volunteering at a wildlife shelter in Australia.

“I don’t think I’ve ever thought about where it came from,” she said.

“It just is there and it’s just one of those things that, if you’re lucky enough to find a passion in life, you should not take that for granted and you should try and do everything you can to follow that.”

She has also been involved in other exciting projects as part of her clinical residency training programme at Massey University’s Wildbase Hospital. In 2019, she helped perform live-saving brain surgery on a young kakapo chick, believed to be a world first procedure.

Ms Johnson has been back in Australia for about four months. As well as her research, she has been doing some locum work at Adelaide Zoo.

At present, she is trying to decide whether to go down a more research-based path, or pursue clinical work in a zoo or wildlife veterinary organisation to continue to contribute to conservation.

She had “many intentions” to come back to New Zealand.

“I’m sure I’ll be back. I’m sure I’ll be back in Oamaru,” she said.