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A Miami zoo apologizes for kiwi petting encounter that angered New Zealanders

A baby kiwi weighed at a bird park in the Netherlands in 2018.
Robin van Lonkhuijsen
AFP via Getty Images
A baby kiwi weighed at a bird park in the Netherlands in 2018.

A zoo in Miami has apologized for offering an "encounter" in which zoo guests could physically touch a kiwi, the flightless bird that is a national symbol of New Zealand, after social media videos sparked outrage.

"On behalf of everyone at Zoo Miami, please accept our most profound and sincere apology for the stress initiated by a video on social media depicting the handling and housing of 'Paora,' the kiwi bird that is presently under our care," the zoo said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The concerns expressed "have been taken very seriously and as a result, effective immediately, the Kiwi Encounter will no longer be offered," the zoo added.

The kiwi encounter with Paora was offered as "a one of a kind experience you'll be sure to cherish forever," the zoo's website said before that encounter was removed. The kiwi encounter was previously offered four times per week.

A video advertising the encounter was posted to Zoo Miami social media accounts in March.

"Are you ready for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter?" a voiceover said, adding that Zoo Miami was the only place in the U.S. that offered such a "close-up" encounter. Footage showed people stroking and scratching the kiwi's head in a well-lit room.

A separate video, posted on TikTok by a zoogoer who had experienced the encounter, showed a handler luring the kiwi — which are nocturnal — into a dark box, only to open the lid to show the guests.

Capturing international attention

Both videos have since been deleted — but only after going viral and eventually becoming national news in New Zealand, where TV stations repeatedly replayed the footage of people handling the bird. An online petition to "save Paora" collected more than 10,000 signatures after it was posted earlier this week.

Ultimately, officials from the New Zealand Department of Conservation said they would "be discussing the situation" with the U.S.-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums to address the concerns.

"I am not going to make any excuses. When I saw the video myself, I said, 'We have made a huge mistake here,'" said Ron Magill, the zoo's communications director, in an interview with Radio New Zealand this week.

"I immediately went to the zoo director and I said, 'We have offended a nation. This is something that has to stop immediately,'" Magill said.

A best practice manual for handling kiwi published by New Zealand's Department of Conservation says the "preferred model" for public events with kiwi is for people to have their photograph taken standing or sitting next to a kiwi that is being held by an accredited handler, rather than allowing members of the public to handle one themselves.

"Kiwi are more delicate than they appear because they lack the sternum and associated musculature that is present in most other birds, which protects the ribcage and vital organs," the guide states. "Kiwi must not be regularly taken out of their burrows just for the purposes of allowing people to see and touch them."

Zoo officials said that Paora's exposure to light, as shown in the social media videos, was "minimal but still wrong."

"I'm embarrassed that we are in this position. This was not well-conceived," Magill said.

A brief history of the kiwi

Kiwi have lived in New Zealand for tens of millions of years. The brown kiwi is classified as "vulnerable to extinction" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which estimates that roughly 27,000 brown kiwi remain in the wild. The birds struggle to survive to adulthood without human intervention.

The birds are considered a national treasure of New Zealand and the Maori people indigenous to the island nation.

Kiwi are rare outside New Zealand. A breeding program based at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute provides fertilized eggs to zoos around the U.S., including Zoo Miami.

Paora hatched at the zoo in 2019, becoming the first kiwi to hatch in the state of Florida. A naming ceremony that year was attended by Maori leaders Chis McKenzie and Paora Haitana — the bird's namesake — along with New Zealand's ambassador to the U.S., Rosemary Banks.

Having had "the honor" of hosting that ceremony made it "especially painful" to have offended New Zealanders, zoo officials said.

Paora is now being kept in a secluded area where he has a dark place to stay during the daytime. The zoo plans to build a special habitat that will provide him shelter "while respecting and supporting his natural instincts," officials said Tuesday.

"We give you our word: The public will never handle Paora again. He will never be subject to those types of lights again," Magill said.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.