A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everday Life

A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everday Life


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All cultures attach important meanings and values to animals, often without being aware of it. In opening New Zealand's book of beasts, then, we are also opening the book of our culture. Touching on Maori relationships with moa and Pakeha attitudes to sheep, the iconography of whales and dolphins, the problems of pest-control and the pleasures of pet-keeping, this modern-day bestiary is a fascinating study of human-animal relations. In the book's four parts, Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong and Deidre Brown unravel the contradictory ways New Zealanders nurture and eradicate, glorify and demonise, cherish and devour, portray and imagine animals. The authors bring together insights from New Zealand's arts and literature, popular culture, historiography, media and everyday life to describe and interrogate our interactions with nga kararehe and nga manu, the animals and birds of this land. In doing so, they illuminate fundamental aspects of our society: how we understand our own identities and those of others; how we regard, inhabit and make use of the natural world; and how we think about what we buy, eat, wear, watch and read. Rich, multifaceted and engaging, A New Zealand Book of Beasts satisfyingly explores how our culture both shapes and is shaped by the 'beasts' of Aotearoa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781869407728
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 03/01/2014
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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A New Zealand Book of Beasts

Animals in our Culture, History and Everyday Life

By Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong, Deidre Brown

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2013 Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong, Deidre Brown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-86940-772-8


Moa Ghosts

All species of moa (Dinornithiformes) have been extinct for three or four centuries. At least that is the consensus among professional palaeo-biologists; not everyone agrees with them. But whether or not moa are long dead in biological terms, culturally speaking they seem to be enjoying a vigorous afterlife. Indeed they have gone quite feral; you can spot them in the most unexpected places.

Visitors arriving at Auckland Airport pass a flock of three on their way out of the domestic terminal car park. A life-sized moa can be found in the middle of Queenstown, with a sign prohibiting tourists from climbing on its back. Others can be seen in Auckland's Queen Street and Wellington's Tory Street, behind the war memorial in Palmerston and in the foyer of the Otago Museum. The Bealey Hotel in Arthur's Pass has a lone specimen standing very tall out the front, and a few more nesting in a back paddock. There is a chainsaw-sculpted wooden moa outside the Owaka Museum and another in Mataura; a wire-mesh moa in Moa Flat and a macrocarpa topiary moa in Edendale. Images of moa appear on road signs in the Canterbury high country and in the Christchurch suburb of Redcliffs – as though at any moment one could lumber out in front of your car. And they are multiplying elsewhere too. They can be seen on beer bottles and clothing, and the covers of music albums – for example, Don McGlashan's 2009 Marvellous Year and, more flamboyantly, Joe Wylie's cover art for the Patea Maori Club's Poi E, featuring the eponymous number-one hit from 1984, which shows male and female superheroes riding moa, kahui rere (flying men) and biped tuatara (fig. 1.1). Meanwhile, painterly depictions of moa are displayed on coffee tables around the nation, in gorgeously illustrated volumes like Alan Tennyson and Paul Martinson's Extinct Birds of New Zealand, and on the walls of fine art collectors and galleries. The big birds have also appeared on TV, in natural history shows that re-create their meetings with early human inhabitants of these islands, and in some entertaining clips on YouTube. There are moa -themed picture books for children, adventure stories for young adults and novels for adults. Moa have provided the theme for a board game, The Amazing Moa Hunt. They have even ventured into the perilous realm of online gaming: the wiki for the role-playing game Guild Wars describes the 'moa bird' as a 'charmable animal found in Ascalon after the Searing': subspecies include the elusive White Moa and the fearsome Black Moa, which is capable of inflicting 'slashing damage'.

Why so many moa? How can we account for the longevity and ubiquity of the big birds, for their role as the avian undead of the New Zealand imagination? The most obvious answer would be that, in these islands devoid of large native terrestrial mammals, the moa fulfils the role of charismatic megafauna. But there is more to it than that. From the outset, our fascination with the moa has been part of both local and global developments in science and politics.


Initial discovery of the remains of moa by Europeans was intimately connected with the emergence of scientific and popular enthusiasm for prehistoric animals that began in the mid-nineteenth century and continues to this day. It was in the decade from 1835 to 1845 – during which Darwin was incubating his theory of natural selection – that moa were first recognised by Europeans, and in particular by European science. Richard Owen, the patriarch of professional palaeontology and the founder of London's Natural History Museum, identified a bone sent from New Zealand as the remains of a 'giant struthious bird', to which he allotted the scientific name Dinornis (prodigious bird), in imitation of his earlier coinage, dinosaur (fig. 1.2). Moa, mammoths and megalosaurs thus strode into the cultural imagination at the very historical moment at which the life sciences were joining battle with the forces of religious orthodoxy. This helps explain our enduring investment in prehistoric species: theories about them, and the accompanying notions of evolution and extinction, were (and remain) powerful weapons in the conflict over what counts as the truth about the natural world.

At the same time as they provoke scientific enquiry, though, extinct species also inspire fantasy and invite the projection of cultural values. We have never seen them in the flesh, so they exist for us only as competing constructions, based on ambiguous traces left in bone and stone. As creatures of interpretation they are inevitably shaped by our shared preconceptions and taken-for -granted assumptions. Certainly the moa were no sooner called back from oblivion than they were weighted down with human meanings. And the kinds of significance they bore were dictated by the historical moment of their rediscovery, which was also that of New Zealand's creation as a British colony. It was in the years on either side of 1840 that accounts of moa were first recorded: by Joel Polack in 1838, and by William Colenso in 1844. These two men are more often remembered in our history for their roles in the creation of New Zealand as a British colony. Polack signed the 1837 petition to William IV that prevailed on Britain to protect the interests of New Zealand's European settlers in New Zealand. Colenso is most famous for his association with the Treaty of Waitangi: he printed the Maori version of the Treaty and (vainly) warned Lieutenant-Governor Hobson of potential misunderstandings between the two signatory parties. Afterwards he was to write 'the most reliable contemporary European account of the signing'.

Summoned up at the same historical moment as the fledgling colony, the moa remained harnessed to its social politics, economics and cultural identity. First, and most obviously, the moa functioned as a totem animal for an emerging sense of New Zealandness. An image by J. E. Ward, published in the Auckland Star newspaper early in the twentieth century, brings together in exemplary fashion the key elements of the imaginary realm known as Maoriland, a primordial wilderness populated by ancient species (avian and human), a version of the country created for the growing Victorian tourist market (fig. 1.3). Against a conventional background of misty-alps-mirrored-in-a-crystal-lake, a Maori maiden and chief lead a harnessed moa; their three children ride on the bird's back while the youngest boy, with an impressive display of balance, performs a haka. These associations were familiar enough at the time for Mark Twain to add his own spin when he visited the South Pacific. In Following the Equator (1898) he includes the following account of the moa's extinction, which he attributes to an English naturalist resident in New Zealand:

The Moa stood thirteen feet high, and could step over an ordinary man's head or kick his hat off; and his head, too, for that matter. He said it was wingless, but a swift runner. The natives used to ride it. It could make forty miles an hour, and keep it up for four hundred miles and come out reasonably fresh. It was still in existence when the railway was introduced into New Zealand; still in existence, and carrying the mails [fig. 1.4]. The railroad began with the same schedule it has now: two expresses a week-time, twenty miles an hour. The company exterminated the moa to get the mails.

Brought back into vigorous life by turn-of-the-century writers and painters, the moa found itself a conceptual beast of burden, a carrier of human meanings.

For some time Dinornis even rivalled Apteryx for the role of national bird. Trevor Lloyd's early cartoons celebrating All Black victories in Britain are often cited as the first use of the kiwi as a collective symbol for New Zealanders (fig. 1.5) – yet Lloyd used the moa to perform the same function, as a cartoon from 1905 demonstrates (fig. 1.6). It was only after the First World War that the kiwi surpassed the moa as the dominant animal totem for New Zealanders, mainly because both the name and stylised image of the smaller bird had become internationally well known thanks to the widespread use of Kiwi boot polish (gallingly enough, an Australian product). Fittingly, it was also Trevor Lloyd who produced Te Tangi o te Moa/The Death of a Moa, an image that seemed to anticipate this second, figurative extinction of Dinornis (fig. 1.7).

But if the living moa was now obsolete as the official symbol of the New Zealander, the dead moa – the moa as an emblem of extinction – retained a fundamental significance in the ongoing definition of New Zealand endemicity. In a well-known Maori whakatauki the moa is the very figure of loss itself: 'ka ngaro i te ngaro a te moa'; 'lost, as the moa is lost'. For Pakeha, too, the most significant cultural function of the moa has been as an embodiment of loss: an image in negative, a memento mori, an x -rayed skeleton. In the recent Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ) documentary Primeval New Zealand (2011), animated moa are portrayed as glowing translucent spectres roaming the forests, giving off little wraiths of ectoplasmic mist as they move.


Experts have identified many species of Dinornithiformes, of different sizes and shapes. And they stress that the birds most likely held their necks curved in front of their bodies rather than stretched up high: '[m]oa were very long birds, not tall ones'. Nevertheless, the original and still the most popular image of the moa is that of an upright biped standing 2 metres or taller – as portrayed in the first widely published artist's impression, which appeared in Ferdinand von Hochstetter's 1867 natural history of New Zealand (fig. 1.8).

All moa species were flightless – indeed the characteristics that allow birds to become airborne were, in the moa, absent or reversed. Instead of being hollow their bones were filled with marrow, and they had flat sternums instead of the keel-shaped breastbones required to support flight muscles. The barbicels that lock feathers together into rigid vanes for flying were missing from moa plumage, which hung in fine filaments, designed for warmth and shelter from the rain. They had no tails. Finally, unlike any other bird – unlike even other flightless species such as their little relative, the kiwi – moa were utterly devoid of wings.

Two-legged, tail-less, wingless, clad in woolly fibres: like looking in an imaginary prehistoric mirror. Similarly, in Maori accounts cited by Colenso, the moa was said to have a human face and to live in a cave. And Elsdon Best quotes 'Pio of Awa, born about 1823', who describes 'certain folk on this island in ancient times' who were 'like birds in appearance, and also resembled man in structure. ... They stood on one leg and held the other up — drawn up.' Pio recounts a conflict between Apa, one of his ancestors, and 'one of these creatures [who] looked like a man standing there. Apa struck a blow at the leg it was standing on, whereupon the creature kicked Apa so violently with the drawn-up leg that he was hurled over a cliff and killed.' According to Best, detailed accounts of moa were rare among Maori in the nineteenth century. The few that were documented, like Pio's testimony, would seem to European ears to describe the moa very anthropomorphically; perhaps only these versions of the moa caught the imagination or stayed in the memory of listening Europeans because of their own inclination to anthropomorphise the moa. That inclination was part of a complex process whereby the bird came to signify an authentic, unique, indigenous – and irretrievably lost – inhabitation of these islands. Envisaged as the dominant figure in New Zealand's primordial landscape – a population prior to Europeans, prior to Maori, prior even to the putative original human settlers allegedly supplanted by Maori – the long-lost moa came to stand, in the mind of European colonists, as the totem for an absolute New Zealand endemicity.

So it is that one of the best-known of all New Zealand poems, Allen Curnow's 'The Skeleton of the Great Moa in Canterbury Museum, Christchurch' (1949), uses the moa as a framework on which to hang ideas about mid-twentieth-century national identity:

    The skeleton of the moa on iron crutches
    Broods over no great waste; a private swamp
    Was where this tree grew feathers once, that hatches
    Its dusty clutch, and guards them from the damp.

    Interesting failure to adapt on islands,
    Taller but not more fallen than I, who come
    Bone to his bone, peculiarly New Zealand's.
    The eyes of children flicker round this tomb

    Under the skylights, wonder at the huge egg
    Found in a thousand pieces, pieced together
    But with less patience than the bones that dug
    In time deep shelter against ocean weather:

    Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
    Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

The final couplet depends on an unspoken reference (pervasive in Curnow's poetry) to the convention of the antipodes as a world -turned-upside-down. 'Standing upright' in such a place is at the same time a marvel and a trick – a reversed reflection of the moa's uprightness, which was once natural but is now an artifice effected by 'iron crutches'. The poet wistfully imagines a future in which the Pakeha might not fail to adapt, might achieve a self -sufficient, free-standing endemicity. Yet the very articulation of this mature settler identity betrays its artificiality, the props that hold it upright: the scaffolding of archaeological reconstruction, the dependence upon identification with prior inhabitants of these islands.

Curnow's poem is a virtuoso performance of these contradictory associations but it does not invent them: they are already familiar by the start of the twentieth century. Within a few decades of its discovery by European settlers the moa had become central to a powerful narrative about New Zealand history and identity.


The moa skeleton in Curnow's poem was assembled under the direction of Julius von Haast, surveyor, explorer, geologist and founder of the Canterbury Museum, who acquired much of his early collection by trading moa skeletons with overseas museums keen to have their own exhibits of Owen's surprising bird. In the 1860s Haast advanced the theory that New Zealand had been inhabited by a pre-Maori people. Naming these first human inhabitants the Moa -hunters, Haast modelled his portrayal of their palaeolithic culture on the Ice Age mammoth hunters of Europe. Although Haast himself considered the Moa-hunters to be Polynesian in origin, his two -people theory of New Zealand colonisation was later extended and reinforced through combination with another idea, one deriving from European interpretations of selected Maori traditions. This was the notion that the first human settlers in New Zealand were a people called the Maruiwi or Mouriuri, who were of Melanesian descent, and were subsequently displaced by the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori. The key figures in the blending together of Haast's palaeolithic Moa-hunters and the non-Polynesian Maruiwi were Edward Tregear, S. Percy Smith, Elsdon Best and Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa). As well as holding high public office, these men were all prominent ethnographers, and they were the most influential gatekeepers of knowledge about Maori and New Zealand history.

It was Tregear who first 'discovered' that Maori were

part of the Aryan Great Migration whereby one group of peoples left the Aryan heartland near the Caspian Sea and went westwards eventually to found the great civilisations of Greece, Rome and now Europe, while another group moved south through India and beyond into the Pacific. Now these two 'vast horns of the Great Migration have touched again' in New Zealand, where the 'Aryan of the West greets the Aryan of the Eastern Sea'.

Tregear's model was consistent with an influential strain in nineteenth-century racial theory, which insisted that cultural advancement in human history came only from the diffusion of Aryan influence. Moa and moa-hunting were therefore central to the development of a historical model that portrayed New Zealand as the site of successive waves of human colonisation, each more Aryan than the last. First came the Maruiwi, 'a primitive, Palaeolithic, nomadic, moa-hunting people' whom Elsdon Best described (citing Maori accounts) as having 'flat noses, distended nostrils, bushy hair, and restless eyes'. They were 'replaced by a superior, Neolithic, agricultural people', the Maori, whose Caucasian or Aryan ancestry was emphasised by Percy Smith and Peter Buck. Yet, having 'subdued an existing people [and] developed an "advanced" Polynesian culture', the Maori 'now were in turn dying out' in the face of a more vigorous Aryan incursion from Europe. Despite their individual doubts and their disagreements with one another about its various elements, Haast, Tregear, Smith, Best and Buck shared joint authorship of this synthetic account, which 'became orthodox Maori history by the 1920s', and remained influential in popular culture well into the 1970s.


Excerpted from A New Zealand Book of Beasts by Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong, Deidre Brown. Copyright © 2013 Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong, Deidre Brown. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

Part 1 Animal Icons Philip Armstrong

1 Moa Ghosts 9

2 Sheepishness 33

3 Opo's Children 61

4 The Whale Road 76

Part 2 Companion Animals Annie Potts

5 Nga Mokai 101

6 Exotic Familiars 122

7 Extended Families 136

Part 3 Art Animals Deidre Brown

8 Indigenous Art Animals 159

9 Contemporary Art Animals 176

Part 4 Controversial Animals Annie Potts

10 Kiwis against Possums 201

11 Consuming Animals 226

Notes 246

Bibliography 265

Acknowledgements 277

Index 279

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