31st May 2023

Last week the US media reported extensively on the uproar caused by a kiwi being mistreated in a visitor “encounter” offered by Miami Zoo. The backlash came after a video posted to TikTok by a zoo visitor was shared on Twitter showing the defenceless animal named Pāora being manhandled. The tweet was posted by @HollyNeillNZ who pointed out that the kiwi is a nocturnal bird and should not have been forced into daylight. At the end of the video the keeper allows Pāora to retreat into a dark box, only to open it after a few seconds to allow the crowd to continue to observe the distressed bird. In the tweet, Holly says “It's so upsetting to see taonga treated like this”.

Taonga is a Maori word which means an object or natural resource which is highly prized - essentially, a national treasure. As a symbol of the nation that is so ubiquitous that it even gave rise to the colloquial demonym for New Zealanders, the kiwi certainly qualifies as a national treasure. It is of course understandable that people in New Zealand were outraged to see their national animal being abused in a zoo halfway around the world, especially as the animal is endangered in the wild at home. It is hard to see any animal that you feel a strong relationship with suffer, particularly when that suffering is inflicted purely as a cheap thrill for tourists at a zoo. 

The backlash in this case was strong enough that Miami Zoo has removed the offer of a $20 ‘kiwi encounter’ from their tours and issued an apology. Although saved from daily harassment and distress from the zoo’s encounters programme, Pāora remains in a cage, and he will most likely die in a cage, having never experienced his true habitat. The sad reality of zoos is that they will always deprive animals of their freedom.

And what of the animals who are not fortunate enough to have a nation cry out in their defence? If it's not appropriate to handle kiwi, or allow close up encounters which impact on their natural behaviours or cause them distress, then it is not appropriate for any animal. Miami Zoo has stopped offering a Kiwi Encounter but their website still allows visitors to purchase a Black Bear, Rhino, Pygmy Hippo, or Tortoise Encounter. Those animals deserve their peace and dignity just as much as Pāora, yet the zoo continues to sell close access to them, allowing visitors into their space and promising participants will be able to “get up-close and personal” with them. It is heartbreaking enough that wild animals spend their entire lives behind bars simply to provide a few moments’ entertainment for human visitors, it is simply disgusting that those visitors are also invited to invade their personal space to prod, poke, and manhandle them as though they are nothing but toys.

In the UK the ‘animal encounters’ practice is just as prevalent as in the US. From between £40-£100 an uninformed person can purchase close access to a captive wild animal at a number of venues across the country. This can include feeding and handling of animals who get no choice in their participation in the experience. This needs to stop. Now.

Zoos claim that adding this experience to your visit will provide funds to help care for their animals. However, frequently when we have investigated zoos we have discovered very little evidence of this ‘care’.

Virgin Experience Days is currently selling animal experience days at South Lakes Safari Zoo. This is despite the zoo’s enduring record of being a demonstrably awful environment for animals. We at Freedom for Animals have been monitoring this facility’s failures for years, and appealing to the authorities to intervene to prevent further suffering, but within this broken system the local authority is not acting to protect the animals held captive at South Lakes, and Virgin Experience Days is now effectively fundraising to keep this exploitative and neglectful business running.

A petition has now been started to save Pāora from Miami Zoo. Its description says “Kiwis are our precious Taonga, not America's toys.” Kiwis are Taonga to the nation of New Zealand, but they are also living, breathing, sensitive, and intelligent individuals who deserve their freedom - and so is every one of the thousands of animals held captive in zoos and aquariums across the world. Zoos claim they hold animals captive in order to protect the species from extinction, but if that’s true then why are they exploiting them like props and games for additional income? And why are wild species numbers still in decline after decades of zoo ‘conservation’ programmes? Animals belong in the wild and true conservation happens in the wild. Species will not be saved from extinction by being treated as commodities in zoos, but by protecting threatened species from habitat loss, poaching, and man-made threats. It is time to stand up for both captive animals and those in the wild by saying no to zoos. 

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