Shy and retiring by nature, with a preference for solitude and the dark, few would describe Paora, 4, as a natural diplomat.
Yet this Miami-based kiwi — one of about 60 of the flightless birds living in zoos outside their native New Zealand — has been forced into the international spotlight, literally and figuratively.
Footage of Paora being petted by zoo visitors under fluorescent lights has caused an outcry in New Zealand, where it is common knowledge that the national bird is nocturnal and should not be handled other than by experts. Zoo Miami apologized this week, saying that it would no longer allow members of the public to touch him.
“I immediately went to the zoo director, and I said, ‘We have offended a nation,’” Ron Magill, a spokesman for the zoo, told Radio New Zealand on Wednesday.
The episode has revealed the potential pitfalls of what might be called “kiwi diplomacy” — New Zealand’s practice of sending kiwi to foreign zoos, much as China does more famously with pandas.
The video of Paora, which was posted to social media, showed him being scratched and petted around the neck and face by a zookeeper, as well as members of the public. More than 10,000 people, many of them New Zealanders, have since signed a petition calling for the zoo to end its “Kiwi Encounter” program, which allowed visitors to have contact with the bird.
Even Prime Minister Chris Hipkins was forced to weigh in. “They’ve acknowledged that what they were doing wasn’t appropriate, or wasn’t right, or wasn’t fair to the kiwi,” he said of the zoo on Wednesday. “That’s really all we can ask of them.”
For many decades, the kiwi has played a small but meaningful part in New Zealand’s relationships with other countries. As with China’s “panda diplomacy,” the idea is to celebrate bilateral ties and to improve breeding outcomes for captive populations.
New Zealand’s rules are rather less stringent than China’s, but there are certain requirements for participating zoos. Kiwi that die must be repatriated to New Zealand for burial. Since 2010, feathers shed by kiwi at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., have been collected and sent back to New Zealand as “taonga,” the Maori word for treasure.
Kiwi have been at the Washington zoo since 1968, when then-Prime Minister Keith Holyoake personally presented the facility with two of the birds. Ten years later, another breeding pair was given to the Frankfurt Zoo, where they and their descendants have produced dozens of long-beaked progeny.
New Zealand’s program has never gotten the attention that China’s has, but its leaders have kept a keen eye on the birds’ diplomatic potential. In 2010, then-Prime Minister John Key suggested that kiwi might be swapped for pandas. “I know people pay $10 million, but we’re a special friend of China, why couldn’t we give them some kiwis?” he told local news media at the time. “Two for two, kiwis are worth a lot.” (So far, at least, that has not happened.)
Paora is related to two birds, named Tamatahi and Hinetu, that were presented to the Washington zoo in 2010, as part of a plan to inject more genetic diversity into small kiwi populations in captivity.
He was transported to Miami as an egg in 2019, and was given his name in a ceremony later that year by visiting representatives from New Zealand, including Rosemary Banks, the ambassador to the United States.
But since the release of the Kiwi Encounter video, New Zealanders, including Paora Haitana, the bird’s namesake and an environmentalist and Maori leader who was part of that visiting group, have questioned whether it is being appropriately cared for in its Florida home.
Hilary Aikman, a top official for New Zealand’s department of conservation, said in a statement this week that the department would raise concerns with the zoo “to try to improve the housing and handling situation.” Magill, the spokesman for the zoo, acknowledged to Radio New Zealand that it had “made a huge mistake.” (“Please know that Paora is normally kept out of public view in a quiet area,” the zoo said in its apology.)
Animal diplomacy has featured in various countries’ foreign policy for centuries, and it often includes stipulations for the animals’ care, said Nancy Cushing, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
“There’s this reflected glory both for the person who has given the gift and for the recipient to have something which is so exotic and eye-catching,” she said. “It amplifies the power on both sides and cements the relationship between the two rulers or governments.”
But it can go wrong, Cushing said, particularly when expectations of how an animal will be cared for are not met.
“It’s like other kinds of diplomacy — it can fail,” she said.