‘Kiwi can’t defend themselves’: New Zealand wrestles with how to save an icon

Tip, a young hunting dog, pads up a goat track through New Zealand’s damp forest undergrowth, alert and excited as her nose hoovers the ground for smells. She stops suddenly to investigate an irresistible scent – the sweet, musty aroma of kiwi.

Tip is allowed a moment to inhale before a low-level electric pulse, issued from a collar, warns her that this bird is out of bounds. She briefly recoils, the electric signal enough to form an immediate negative association with the smell.

It’s a controversial method, but when Tip gives a wide berth to the second kiwi – another freeze-dried bird placed a few metres up the track – she is rewarded with a “good girl” and a pat. She has passed the test and will now be certified with her kiwi avoidance training for the next year.

Locals turn up one after the other, wrapped up warm against the chilly winter morning, to a small patch of bush in Mamaku, near Rotorua on the north island. With them are their excitable dogs that quickly overwhelm the birdsong with yelps and barks. Everyone is here to participate in the training run by conservation group Save the Kiwi, which teaches dogs to avoid kiwi if they encounter them in the wild.

Rama and Erica, who asked not to have their surnames published, want to ensure their dogs never mistake a kiwi for a wallaby – a pest in the area that the dogs like to chase – while hiking. “We’ve been reading a lot of articles about kiwi being mauled by dogs, and the [training] is really easy to do,” Erica says. Their two border collies, Wiki and Yomi, are undergoing their second session – the first was six months ago – and, again, both dogs stay well clear of the kiwi.

New Zealand’s national icon, the fluffy and flightless kiwi, is one of the most vulnerable birds in the country. Conservation efforts have for years tried to boost kiwi population numbers, but still their status ranges from “recovering” to “nationally critical”, depending on the species.

Desperate efforts at conservation have led to trials of measures such as the electric collar, which have raised concerns about the welfare of the dogs as much as the kiwi, and their use is banned in some places overseas.

There are roughly 68,000 left, and 2% of unmanaged kiwi die every year – about 20 a week – according to the Department of Conservation. Of the kiwi that hatch in the wild, 95% are killed before they reach adulthood. The most prolific killers of kiwi, after stoats, weasels and ferrets, are dogs. It is difficult to assess exactly how many birds are killed by dogs each year – some owners are not aware, or deliberately hide the evidence – but Save the Kiwi estimates it is about 400.

Kiwi have underdeveloped wing and chest muscles and no sternum, making them particularly vulnerable to dog bites.

“There is nothing protecting them – they are basically just two massive drumsticks with a head,” says Blake Cole, a kiwi avoidance trainer with Save the Kiwi.

Cole is one of many trainers across New Zealand holding sessions on responsible dog ownership, with avoidance training just one tool in the wider efforts to protect kiwi, including predator control, breeding programmes, conservation and research.

Integral to the training model is using real, already dead kiwi, some of their pungent faeces, and feathers from their nests to pique the dogs’ interest. Now the programme is looking to new technology. Cole, a former engineer, has teamed up with New Zealand’s University of Canterbury megatronics students to create a moving kiwi that will mimic the bird’s unique gait and provide an enticing moving target for the dogs.

Using electric collars as a training tool is contentious in New Zealand. Individual dogs can react differently to the pulses, with some having a more negative experience than others, says Kat Littlewood, an animal welfare lecturer at Massey University.

“It’s much more effective to train with a positive thing than using a negative technique,” she says, adding that muzzles and leads are a good alternative.

Cole agrees that, ideally, dogs would be on leads or kept away from the bush altogether, but should they need to be there, or they find their way into kiwi habitat on their own, Cole hopes the sessions will go some way towards protecting the birds.

“It’s about getting the message across that you can’t just let your dog out in the middle of the night for a wee and leave him out there for half an hour if you don’t know what he is up to. People seem to think that they are just chasing possums.”

The collar is the most effective tool the group has at this point, he adds. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have.” Trainers always use the lowest setting, which is usually enough to create a lasting negative association, Cole says.

The training primarily targets working dogs – those needed for farming and hunting – and is seen as a last resort for pets, with owners being encouraged to ensure their dog never meets a kiwi. But some pet owners are now seeking out the sessions as an extra precaution.

Nikki and Mike, who declined to give their surname, have brought along their “blue heeler” cattle dog, Fletcher, for his first session. “We spend all our weekends in the bush and the mountains, and the kiwi aversion is a no-brainer,” Mike says.

“Their natural drive is to go after a bird, and kiwi can’t defend themselves,” Nikki adds. “So we have got to do our bit.”

Hollie Beaumont, also with her blue heeler, Freddie, in tow, says there are parts of New Zealand that require dogs to have completed avoidance training before being allowed in. For Beaumont, a keen trail-biker, it was important to have Freddie properly trained “with the smell of a real kiwi”.

Ultimately, she says, it is the responsible thing to do as a dog owner. “It’s a luxury to have a dog, but it’s more of a luxury to have kiwi.”

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