‘Kiwi can’t defend itself’: New Zealand wonders how to save an icon | New Zealand

Jip, a young hunting dog, takes a goat trail through the wet undergrowth of the new zealand forest, alert and excited as his nose scans the ground for scent. She suddenly stops to explore an irresistible scent – the sweet, musty aroma of kiwi.

Tip is allowed to breathe in for a moment before a low-level electrical pulse, emitted from a collar, warns him that this bird is out of bounds. She recoils briefly, the electrical signal enough to form an immediate negative association with the scent.

It’s a controversial method, but when Tip waves wide at the second kiwi — another freeze-dried bird placed a few feet up the track — she’s rewarded with a “nice girl” and a smack. She passed the test and will now be certified with her kiwi avoidance training for next year.

Locals show up one after another, wrapped warm against the cold winter morning, in a small patch of bushland in Mamaku, near Rotorua on the North Island. With them are their excitable dogs who quickly overwhelm the birdsong with yelps and barks. Everyone is here to take part in the training run by conservation group Save the Kiwi, which teaches dogs to avoid kiwis if they encounter them in the wild.

A stuffed kiwi is used as Jenny Lux and trainer Blake Cole work with Skye at Mamaku. Cole says more awareness is needed about the risks dogs pose to kiwifruit. Photography: Alan Gibson/The Guardian

Rama and Erica, who asked that their surnames not be published, want to make sure their dogs never mistake a kiwi for a wallaby – a local pest that dogs like to hunt – while hiking. “We have read a lot of articles about kiwi fruit mutilated by dogs, and the [training] is really easy to do,” says Erica. Their two border collies, Wiki and Yomi, are undergoing their second session – the first was six months ago – and, once again, both dogs are staying well away from Kiwi.

New Zealand’s national icon, the fluffy, flightless kiwifruit, is one of the country’s most vulnerable birds. Conservation efforts have tried for years to increase the number of kiwifruit populations, but their status still ranges from “in recovery” to “nationally critical,” depending on the species.

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

About 68,000 remain and 2% of unmanaged kiwifruit die each year – about 20 a week – according to the Department of Conservation. Of the kiwis that hatch in the wild, 95% are killed before reaching adulthood. The most prolific kiwi killers, 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 unaware or deliberately hide the evidence – but Save the Kiwi estimates it to be around 400.

A dog participates in a training to avoid kiwis
A dog participates in a training to avoid kiwis Photography: Alan Gibson/The Guardian

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

“There’s nothing to protect them – they’re basically just two huge drumsticks with a head,” says Blake Cole, a kiwi avoidance trainer with Save the Kiwi.

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

An integral part of the training model is to use real, already dead kiwis, some of their pungent droppings, and feathers from their nests to pique dogs’ interest. Now the program is turning to new technologies. Cole, a former engineer, has teamed up with New Zealand megatronics students from the University of Canterbury to create a moving kiwi that will mimic the bird’s unique gait and provide an attractive moving target for dogs.

The use of electric collars as a training tool is controversial in New Zealand. Individual dogs may react differently to impulses, with some having a more negative experience than others, says Kat Littlewood, lecturer in animal welfare 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 leashes are a good alternative.

Blake Cole with a stuffed kiwi during a dog training at Mamaku
Blake Cole with a stuffed kiwi during sessions at Mamaku. When dogs are left outside, “people seem to think they’re just chasing possums.” Photography: Alan Gibson/The Guardian

Cole agrees that ideally the dogs would be leashed or completely out of the bush, but if they had to be there, or found their way through the kiwi habitat on their own, Cole hopes the sessions will help protect the birds.

“It’s about getting the message out that you can’t just let your dog out in the middle of the night for a little while and leave him outside for half an hour if you don’t know what he’s doing. people seem to think they’re just hunting opossums.

The collar is the most effective tool the group has at this point, he adds. “We are doing the best we can with what we have.” Coaches 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 encouraged to ensure their dog never encounters a kiwi. But some pet owners are now seeking the sessions as an added precaution.

Nikki and Mike, who declined to give their last name, brought their “blue heeler” cattle dog, Fletcher, for his first session. “We spend all our weekends in the bush and the mountains, and the aversion to kiwifruit is obvious,” says Mike.

“Their natural motivation is to go after a bird, and the kiwi can’t defend itself,” adds Nikki. “So we have to do our part.”

Hollie Beaumont, also accompanied by her blue heel Freddie, says there are parts of New Zealand that require dogs to have undergone avoidance training before they are allowed entry. For Beaumont, a trail enthusiast, it was important to have Freddie properly trained “with the smell of a real kiwi”.

Ultimately, she says, it’s 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 a kiwi.”

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