Miami zoo kiwi encounter: zoo vows to 'do better' by kiwi Paora after fierce backlash from New Zealand

Paora, Zoo Miami's resident kiwi bird, was the first of his kind hatched in Florida (Photo: Zoo Miami)Paora, Zoo Miami's resident kiwi bird, was the first of his kind hatched in Florida (Photo: Zoo Miami)
Paora, Zoo Miami's resident kiwi bird, was the first of his kind hatched in Florida (Photo: Zoo Miami) | Zoo Miami
Zoo Miami has issued a 'profound' apology for any stress caused by a controversial social media video of the handling and housing of Paora, the state of Florida's only resident kiwi

Up-close encounters with a New Zealand kiwi in a Florida zoo have ruffled feathers back in the bird's native country, with videos showing the nocturnal critter being pet by members of the public under bright lights sparking outrage.

Zoo Miami has this week canned its controversial 'Kiwi Encounter' experience after fierce backlash, which offered guests the chance to meet their kiwi - the only one in the state - for just over US$23 (£18.60). It has also apologised to the people of New Zealand for any offense or upset caused by the way the bird was handled, and has resolved to "do better" in terms of its resident kiwi's care going forward.

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But some are still calling for the flightless bird to be removed from the zoo's care over animal welfare concerns, while others are questioning why the native New Zealand bird is in Florida at all.

Here's everything you need to know.

Why were New Zealanders angry about Zoo Miami's kiwi encounter?

In now-deleted videos, seen by NationalWorld, a kiwi - referred to as Paora in the footage - was seen sitting on a towel under bright lights, as a keeper and members of the public scratched, petted and fed him. In one clip, the keeper acknowledged it was usually hard to see kiwi in captivity, because they would hide during the day - being a nocturnal species.

Tweets and social media posts screenshotted by other media outlets - many of which have also since been deleted - show visitors taking selfies with the bird, while a Facebook post which was still up as of Thursday (25 May) shows Paora posing inside a pumpkin.

Photos on Zoo Miami's Facebook page showed their resident kiwi posed inside a pumpkin (Picture: NationalWorld/Zoo Miami)Photos on Zoo Miami's Facebook page showed their resident kiwi posed inside a pumpkin (Picture: NationalWorld/Zoo Miami)
Photos on Zoo Miami's Facebook page showed their resident kiwi posed inside a pumpkin (Picture: NationalWorld/Zoo Miami) | NationalWorld/Zoo Miami

But the footage prompted outrage from New Zealanders - who were concerned the kiwi was being handled roughly by inexperienced members of the public, and was being exposed to harsh lighting, which it would usually avoid. In New Zealand, people need a special permit to handle the native bird.

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A petition on Change.org, seeking save the "mistreated kiwi", had been signed by more than 13,000 people as of Thursday. Its creator alleged the bird 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".

"We may not be able to bring Paora home, but we do have the ability to get him the care he deserves," creator Jeseka Christieson wrote. "We hope this petition can reach someone who has the power to spark an investigation into his conditions, and relocate him to a more suitable environment."

New Zealand's Department of Conservation (DOC) has also waded in, with terrestrial biodiversity director Hilary Aikman telling Stuff news they planned to raise concerns with the US zoo, via the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to try and improve the housing and handling situation.

“Kiwi are a taonga species and are treasured by all New Zealanders... The protection and welfare of kiwi is a high priority.”

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What has Zoo Miami's response to the backlash been?

In a statement released on Tuesday (23 May), Zoo Miami apologised, and announced it would no longer run its kiwi encounter.

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

Paora had thrived at Zoo Miami and was receiving the best care available, they said, but the Kiwi Encounter was "in hindsight, not well conceived with regard to the national symbolism of this iconic animal and what it represents to the people of New Zealand, especially the Māori".

The continued: "Having had the honour of hosting the Honourable New Zealand Ambassador to the United States and several representatives of the Māori people during a special naming ceremony here at Zoo Miami, it is especially painful to all of us to think that anything that has occurred with Paora here at Zoo Miami would be offensive to any of the wonderful people of New Zealand. Again, we are deeply sorry."

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Paora was normally kept out of public view in a quiet area, the zoo said, which provided him with a special shelter that enabled him to remain in darkness during the day. He was free to come out and explore his habitat in the quiet of the evening, they said. "Plans are presently underway to build a special habitat for him that will continue to provide him with the shelter that he needs while respecting and supporting his natural instincts. It will be developed in such a way that we can teach our guests about the amazing kiwi without any direct contact from the public."

Zoo Miami said it felt "extremely privileged" to be the first facility in the state of Florida to successfully hatch a kiwi as part of a partnership with the Smithsonian National Zoo. "Thank you for expressing your concern, love and passion for this remarkable bird. We are listening and will do better to provide it with the respect and committed care that it so richly deserves and sincerely regret any actions that may have indicated otherwise."

Why is there a kiwi in a Florida zoo?

All kiwi are endemic to New Zealand, where they are considered a taonga - or treasured - species. Some species are considered at-risk, or even endangered. However, like many of New Zealand's native animals, a select number were exported to zoos, private collectors, and research centres before the country's wildlife laws were tightened in the mid-1900s.

According DOC there are an estimated 60 kiwi living outside of New Zealand - most of them in the United States, Germany, and the Netherlands. The UK has one known kiwi, who lives at Paignton Zoo in Devon.

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Paora is a North Island brown kiwi, and in April 2019 became the first kiwi of any species hatched in the state of Florida. Zoo Miami received his fertilized egg a month earlier from the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where it was laid in late January. The egg was sent to Zoo Miami as part of a special loan agreement between the Smithsonian National Zoo and the New Zealand government.

The Smithsonian National Zoo was the first in the world to hatch a brown kiwi outside of New Zealand in 1975, and its kiwi population has grown since. As of 2022, it had hatched seven chicks at its Washington DC zoo, and 10 at its Kiwi Science Facility in Virginia.

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