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Zoo Miami kiwi controversy: What are suitable conditions for Aotearoa’s national bird?

25 May, 2023 

Interview by Spike Keith, adapted by Rawan Saadi 

A US Zoo was criticised this week for allowing a kiwi to be pet by visitors under bright light. Conservation biologist at the University of Auckland James Russell says these conditions are  disorientating for kiwi and could have devastating effects. Photo: Canva. 

Listen to the full interview 

Earlier this week, Zoo Miami in the US state of Florida posted a video on social media showing their 'Kiwi Encounter' experience.

The video showed the nocturnal bird named Paora being held and pet by visitors under bright light.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) in Aotearoa criticised the mistreatment of the Paora, and a petition was launched to save the bird. 

Zoo Miami Communications director Roger Magil has now apologised, stating they "made a huge mistake”. 

According to the DOC, five kiwis were gifted to the US for the purpose of increasing genetic diversity in the population held in zoos. 

Conservation biologist at the University of Auckland James Russell told 95bFM’s The Wire that the conditions he saw in the video were not acceptable for a Kiwi.

“Kiwis are kept in a nocturnal exhibit… they are not put on display for people to pet.”

He said taking kiwis out of a dark, quiet setting for long periods of time would cause disorientation. 

“It would be like someone coming into your bedroom at 3am in the morning and waking you up with loud excitement.”

He warned that continued mistreatment could have devastating effects. 

“We all have the ability to adapt to short-term stress, but if it happens repeatedly, it can have long-term effects on body condition, health, reproductive ability, and eventually life span.”  

In Aotearoa, there are practice regulations enforced by the Department of Conservation when keeping kiwi in captivity.

According to Russell, Auckland Zoo and the Otorohanga Kiwi House are good examples of enclosures that have maintained appropriate standards and have helped inform international programmes habitat standards. 

Russell appreciated that Zoo Miami apologised and promised to change their conditions for kiwis and believes there is value in having our native species in zoos in other countries. 

“It is a great opportunity that people overseas can see some of our native taonga without having to take a carbon-heavy flight all the way to New Zealand.”