US zoo staff were seen placing the nocturnal bird in bright light for around five minutes a day during public encounters in videos shared on social media, outraging New Zealanders and conservation experts.
Zoo Miami hatched the male kiwi, named Paora, in 2019, a first for the state of Florida. Kiwi are flightless birds native to New Zealand.
But Paora appeared “frightened” while being petted by members of the public as frequently as four times a week, New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) staff who anaylsed the footage told local media.
Videos show a Zoo Miami staff member lifting the lid of a darkened enclosure that the kiwi retreated to, plunging him into light. Paora was also seen being placed under bright lights inside while being petted by staff.
An employee can be heard telling visitors: “He loves being pet, he’s like a little dog and he loves his little head being touched.”
But the kiwi is seen as a taonga or a national treasure to the people of New Zealand, who were left upset by the treatment of this male.
The treatment of this poor kiwi at Miami Zoo is appalling. I'm so mad about this. It's being kept awake during the day despite being a nocturnal species. When it runs to hide in a dark box, they open the lid. It's so upsetting to see taonga treated like this. pic.twitter.com/IDuq4gNN0c
— Holly (@HollyNeillNZ) May 22, 2023
One expert told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) that kiwis should “never be handled” and people need to be “extremely careful” while touching their head and beak.
Kiwicoast’s Ngaire Sullivan said: “We would never be allowed to do that anywhere in New Zealand.”
DOC guidelines state that kiwi must not be regularly taken out of their burrows.
In response to the backlash, Zoo Miami said it was “profoundly sorry” and has scrapped the weekly public encounters, “effective immediately”.
Goodwill ambassador Ron Magill told Newshub’s AM Show on Tuesday: “We were really not as sensitive as we should be to the fact that this bird is a symbol, it’s a national treasure.
“There is no excuse.
“I cannot tell you how painful it is for me to think that we have offended people, we have offended a nation, [through] something that we have done, certainly not intentionally,” he added.
Mr Magill said Paora was the first kiwi hatched in the state of Florida in 2019 and the public had been able to touch and pet him since 2020.
"It's wrong. It will not happen again": The US zoo at the centre of outrage over treatment of Paora the kiwi tells Ryan Bridge it's "profoundly sorry" https://t.co/Uum6T3FTEG #AMShowNZ pic.twitter.com/64ubFnq0lG
— AM (@AMShowNZ) May 24, 2023
In a statement released on Tuesday, Zoo Miami said concerns over Paroa’s treatment have been taken seriously.
“The development of 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 MÄori.
“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 feels 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.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Chris Hipkins told local reporters: “I think the zoo has immediately taken steps to address concerns that were raised.
“That’s all we can really ask of them.”