A video of visitors fondling a kiwi, the Pacific country's reclusive national symbol, has sparked an international incident
Zoo Miami issued a formal apology to New Zealand on Wednesday after footage of visitors to the zoo manhandling its only kiwi - the country's beloved national bird - triggered an avalanche of complaints and an inquiry from Wellington's Department of Conservation.
The zoo "made a huge mistake" in offering visitors a hands-on 'Kiwi Encounter' with Paora the kiwi for $25, spokesman Ron Magill confessed in an interview with Radio New Zealand, acknowledging the outrage and admitting "we have offended a nation."
"We give you our word that the public will never handle Paora again," he vowed, speaking "on behalf of everyone at the zoo." The Kiwi Encounter was discontinued immediately and Paora's habitat has been redesigned to "give him all the dignity and respect and honor he deserves," he added.
A video showing multiple zoo guests pawing at the distressed kiwi - hatched in the US in 2019 as part of a "species survival program" - elicited howls of protest from New Zealand residents after it went viral on Tuesday. The footage showed a seemingly oblivious animal handler insisting the endangered bird was "like a little dog" who loved "being pet," even though the bird darted for his darkened box as soon as he was set down.
New Zealanders refer to themselves as Kiwis and consider the creature a sacred cultural treasure ("taonga" in Maori).
One outraged viewer launched a petition that same day, urging his countrymen to "Help Save This Mistreated Kiwi," noting Paora 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."
By the end of the day, 9,000 people had signed the petition, while others launched an email campaign against the zoo and demanded the bird be repatriated. The New Zealand Department of Conservation issued a statement thanking "everyone who has raised concerns about Paora," promising to discuss the matter with the American Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
Magill admitted the Kiwi Encounter "was not well conceived" to begin with and that it was "wrong" to attempt to acclimate the reclusive, nocturnal, flightless bird to being fondled by strangers. He praised New Zealanders' "commitment to their wildlife," noting that one of the complaints he received had asked, "How would you feel if we did that to your bald eagle?" - America's national bird.
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins praised his constituents, "who witnessed what was happening there [and] caught it pretty quickly," thanking Zoo Miami for its apology and for "taking it seriously."