The treatment of a kiwi at a Miami zoo has enraged thousands of New Zealanders, who launched a furious campaign to bring their national bird home and prompted the zoo to apologise.
Videos of Pāora – a kiwi bird housed by Zoo Miami – being handled and petted by guests under bright lights emerged on Tuesday, to almost immediate uproar in New Zealand.
Reclusive and nocturnal, kiwis are beloved in New Zealand to the point that the flightless, rotund, nocturnal ground-dweller has become the country’s national icon.
The footage went viral within hours – sparking a 9,000-person petition, a flood of complaints to the zoo, a government intervention from the Department of Conservation and comments from the prime minister.
On Wednesday, zoo spokesperson Ron Magill said the zoo had “made a huge mistake here”. After receiving a flood of complaints, “I immediately went to the zoo director, and I said, we have offended a nation,” he said in an interview on national radio.
Later that day, prime minister Chris Hipkins weighed in on the incident, saying it “shows a lot of Kiwis take pride in our national bird when they’re overseas”.
“The New Zealanders who witnessed what was happening there caught it pretty quickly,” he said. The prime minister added that the zoo had “made public statements of regret on what’s happened, and I acknowledge that and thank them for taking it seriously”.
Americans may have been surprised by the immediacy and volume of the fury on behalf of the kiwi – but New Zealand is unusually dedicated to the welfare of its endemic birds.
The country’s early breakaway from other land masses means that it has no native land mammals, and is instead populated instead by a vast array of birds. Many are now endangered, and there are ongoing national campaigns to wipe out predators and save them. The kiwi holds a special place in the hearts of New Zealanders. It is considered a taonga (cultural treasure) by Māori.
Pāora, the Miami bird, was hatched in the US as part of a breeding program.
The zoo had begun charging guests US$25 for a “kiwi encounter” to meet the bird. In a video posted to the zoo’s social media, a handler cuddles Paora, scratching his head and showing him off to a group of visitors, who feed him worms. “He loves being pet, he’s like a little dog and he loves his head being pet,” they say.
One viewer immediately launched a petition to “Help Save This Mistreated Kiwi,” arguing that he was “subjected to bright fluorescent lighting 4 days a week, being handled by dozens of strangers, petted on his sensitive whiskers, laughed at, and shown off like a toy”.
Within less than a day, more than 9,000 people had signed. Others launched an email campaign to the zoo, with some calling for prime minister Chris Hipkins to speak directly to the US ambassador and intervene. New Zealand’s department of conservation stepped in on Tuesday, saying a statement “We would like to thank everyone who has raised concerns about Paora, the kiwi at Miami zoo”, and that the department would be “discussing the situation with the American Association of Zoos & Aquariums”.
Less than 24 hours later, Paora was returned to darkness. While the bird would not be repatriated to New Zealand, the “kiwi encounter” would be ended immediately, and Paora no longer exposed to fluorescent lights, the zoo said. “We listened to everyone who wrote to us – and there were a lot,” Magill said.
In a lengthy apology to one complainant, the zoo said they were “deeply sorry” and that the kiwi encounter “was, in hindsight, not well conceived”.
“It is especially painful to all of us to think that anything that has occurred here at Zoo Miami would be offensive to any of the wonderful people of New Zealand.”