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Monday, May 29, 2023

Miami zoo apologizes after treatment of kiwi bird ‘offended a nation’

A Florida zoo has apologized for offering an “encounter” where visitors could pet a kiwi, New Zealand’s national bird, following outrage in the animal’s home country. It said it has stopped the practice.

An online petition to “help save” Paora, the nocturnal, flightless bird at Zoo Miami, garnered more than 10,000 signatures in two days this week. Video broadcast by New Zealand outlet 1 News showed the creature taken out of his enclosure and firmly patted as one of the zoo’s up-close animal encounters, which are offered for $23.36.

Jeseka Christieson, the New Zealander who started the petition, wrote on the website that kiwis were precious, not “America’s toys.” The bird is so beloved by New Zealanders that the country’s humans are often referred to as “Kiwis.”

“He has been tamed and is subjected to bright fluorescent lighting four days a week, being handled by dozens of strangers, petted on his sensitive whiskers,” she wrote. “Kiwi are nocturnal animals, who should be kept in suitable dark enclosures, and minimally handled.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins, in a news conference Wednesday, thanked Zoo Miami for stopping the encounter program. “They’ve acknowledged that what they were doing wasn’t appropriate, or wasn’t right, or wasn’t fair, to the kiwi,” he said.

In a statement posted to its website Tuesday, Zoo Miami offered “our most profound and sincere apology.”

“The development of the kiwi encounter was, in hindsight, not well conceived,” it said.

Zoo Miami communications director Ron Magill told Radio New Zealand on Wednesday that “I immediately went to the zoo director, and I said, ‘We have offended a nation,’” after viewing the encounter video. He said Paora would not be in contact with the public or exposed to fluorescent lights again.

The New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Kiwi Best Practice Manual stipulates that “kiwi must not be regularly taken out of their burrows just for the purposes of allowing people to see and touch them.”

It allows for a kiwi to be gently stroked on its back by members of the public if the bird was already being handled for another reason, such as rehabilitation, a site transfer or a routine health check.

But it says the public “must not touch the head, facial bristles or bill of the bird,” as was depicted in video of the Zoo Miami encounter.

New Zealand’s Department of Conservation said Tuesday on Twitter that “offshore kiwi are managed separately,” but it would be “discussing the situation” with the U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Paora was hatched at Zoo Miami in 2019. Kiwis in captivity are “extremely rare,” according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

Rosemary Banks, New Zealand’s ambassador to the United States at the time, was given naming rights and chose to honor Paora Haitana, a Maori leader and conservationist who was also present at a naming ceremony at the zoo that year.

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