Before arriving in New Zealand, I knew generally three things about the sort of animal life to be found in the country:
1. There are no squirrels.
2. There are, however, enough sheep to make up for the squirrels’ absence…and then some.
3. They have kiwis – not kiwifruit, but a little bird that lends itself as a national icon and internationally-recognized nickname for New Zealanders.
Pretty extensive, eh? And I only know point #1 because of a time in London when Arron excitedly showed me a photo he’d taken of a squirrel in Hyde Park. “So what? It’s a squirrel,” was more or less my reaction, but I was soon informed they’re nowhere to be seen in New Zealand. Imagine a life void of those bushy-tailed creatures and how boring (or more enjoyable?) a visit to the park would be.
Well, I am pleased to report that yesterday, I had the chance to grow my knowledge on a visit to Willow Bank Wildlife Reserve. A few friends from the restaurant and I had been talking about a visit and decided this Saturday was the day. Located several miles/kilometers/whatever-unit-of-distance-you-prefer outside Christchurch, it’s out by the airport, Orana Wildlife Park, the Antarctic Centre, and a few dozen golf courses. It wasn’t exactly easy to find and we didn’t exactly know where we were going. Thus, like any good roadtrip we spent a good half hour on trial-and-error directions – “Now this way!” kind of stuff. As Ellen put it, “As long as we’re not stressed, being lost is fun.”
But of course, we got there in the end, and promptly handed over an exorbitant sum to enter. A sign stated, “Animals are our life, not our business” – if that’s the case, then why the heck am I forking out a $25 entry fee plus nine dollars for three separate containers of food for eels, birds, and farmyard animals? The eel food came in a tiny plastic cup, not dissimilar to the ones used for ketchup and other sauces at various dine-in fast food restaurants back home, and you were given a straw with a wee spoon on the end to give them the meat with. It was basically a Slurpee straw, I was excited to find, which had me dreaming about my favorite banana/pina colada Slurpee combination. Quite the opposite of the scarring experience that was feeding the “tame eels.” Tame? Picture twenty slimy, slithering, silky black eels sliding over each other with their disgusting little mouths gaping open – such stuff that nightmares are made of. I practically dumped my $3 cup of meat into one mouth and made out of there like a bat out of you know where.
From the eels to the deer to the ostrich we went, shadowed always by a thousand ducks. They were everywhere and often loved to waddle out in front of you just when you thought you’d lost ‘em. If I wanted to feed a duck, I could’ve bought a loaf of bread and rocked up to Hagley Park or Victoria Square. It’s unfortunate for them, really – being so common sort of works against them. But there they were, begging for food nonetheless. We all agreed with Ellen: “I bet these ducks weren’t even invited, they just started hanging around.”
After losing two fingers to the ostrich (“Ooh, you’re supposed to keep your hand flat when the food’s on it?”), we visited my third favorite animal of the day – the wallaby. It was like a kangaroo but more compact and thus infinitely cuter. However, the little darlings seemed to tread the line between docile and just plain lazy. Many of them seemed unconcerned with our presence, staying still long enough for us to pet them and have our picture taken with them, which is fine and all for the sake of the photo shoot, but where’s the action, man? After being accosted by the deer for food, the wallabies took ages to eat one pellet, clearly obeying their mother’s advice to chew each bite at least seven times. After realizing she had probably just wasted several pellets by throwing them at a single wallaby, Ellen says, “The eels are all like, ‘Feed me now!’ but the wallabies couldn’t care less.”
“Yeah,” Kailim says, “It’s like a sloth met a kangaroo, said ‘let’s get it on,’ and one day there was a wallaby.” At the far end of the wallaby yard was a three-sided shed with a whole group of them just sitting around – I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a campfire appear out of nowhere. We tried calling them over to us, pretty keen to dispose of our food pellets but alas, they’d have none of it. Alex lamented, “It’s like they’re having a board meeting and don’t want refreshments.” But when you’re that cute, we really couldn’t hold it again them.
For those of you keeping track, my second favorite creature was found on Monkey Island – the black-capped capuchin monkeys, to be exact. While we were first enthralled by the precious sight of a baby monkey on its mama’s back (bringing new meaning to the phrase ‘baby got back’), we were soon in love with a monkey of a different sort. Kailim started the trend of chucking pellets across the water to the island despite the “Please don’t feed the monkeys” sign – as you do. But perhaps because they aren’t fed by visitors as much as the others explains why our little monkey friend went coo coo for Cocoa Puffs, standing as close to the edge of the island as he could possibly manage, collecting every pellet we threw in his wee little hands and utterly stuffing his face with them. He couldn’t have eaten them any faster – quite frankly, he put the wallabies to shame. What’s more was that he had quite the hunchback as he scampered around, filling his arms to overflowing, a rather primate-version of Gollum. You could almost hear him hissing “my preciousss” with each pellet he collected. It added quite the air of desperation to his efforts. But we applauded his endeavors, which were indubitably more industrious than those of his friend, who looked like he’d had just one drink too many. He could barely support himself, taking a few cautious steps before bracing an arm on a tree or gatepost. They all seemed like little men, so much so that for the first time I thought, “Well maybe we did come from them after all…”
We wandered on, following an endless trail of wooden paths around the complex, and our bags of food grew lighter and lighter. A pair of otters scurried about gathering grass and twigs for a nest presumably. The hilarious thing about their system was that they’d keep going without dropping off their finds, the grass in their mouths growing and growing into a massively long set of whiskers. But then they’d stop suddenly, as if they sensed they were being watched and literally would stare you straight in the eye for several seconds, as if to say, “Yeah, my mouth is full of stuff.” The lemurs weren’t so energetic, however. Actually, they weren’t at all, curled into little balls on their branches, unresponsive and seriously depressed. “Man, get over yourself,” Kailim says as we quickly moved on.
Despite how much we enjoyed (or didn’t) each animal, there was no doubt as to the real reason for the visit – at the top of the favorites list, the kiwi. Even the front of the brochure for Willow Bank boldly proclaims “Your Kiwi Guarantee,” and wooden direction signs along the path simply read, “KIWI” – enough said. It was as if each preceding animal was a mere preview building up to the main attraction. As kiwis are nocturnal, an apparently well-known fact I just learned yesterday, they weren’t just kept in the open air like the other animals. You walked through a covered wooden walkway, came to a door with a sign, “Quiet please, kiwi sleeping,” and entered their indoor habitat. It might as well have been another world altogether. The quiet stillness was broken only by the sound of a little river, unlike the cries of children or honks and breys from animals outside. It took your eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness, but you could soon make out the artificial woodland environment of the shelter. And then…the long-awaited kiwi. I saw two, in fact, one foraging through ferns and grass, another poking its long beak in the river, making a noise that sounded like it was blowing water bubbles out of the end of a straw. For some reason, I’d always imagined a kiwi bird to be the size of a baseball or grapefruit, but the ones we saw were realistically not that not far off from a chicken. Even though my sightings weren’t numerous, they were worth every dollar of the admission fee. To be able to say I’ve seen a kiwi in person makes my whole experience in New Zealand thus far feel that much more legitimate.
And oh were they cute. I could easily have taken a kiwi home with me, which reminds me of a story someone shared in the car as we passed the Antarctic Centre on the way in. The story goes that one day, a mother and her young son visited the Centre, renowned for its penguin exhibit. That night, as the boy took a bath, his mother went to check on him after hearing more splashing than usual and was alarmed to see a real penguin in the tub with her son. Clearly this raises a series of questions, such as: how did a penguin fit in the boy’s backpack? How did the penguin go unnoticed until bathtime? How did the security system at the Centre let this slip? Now, having just Googled the story, I’m disappointed to find this, of course, highly improbable, the only relevant entry being a link to an urban legend of an identical penguin-napping occurring at both the New England Aquarium in Boston and the Dublin Zoo. Somehow, the story must’ve found its way (maybe in a boy’s backpack?) to New Zealand where someone thought it’d be funny to tell about the Antarctic Centre. Urban legend or not, I’m tempted to give the idea a go and procure myself a kiwi or two next time I’m at Willow Bank.
Besides the actual kiwi viewing area, there was an additional room that provided not only general information about the kiwi bird, but also a history of animal life in New Zealand as a whole. There’s no arguing the isolation of this country in relation to the rest of the world. Willow Bank traced the cause of New Zealand’s position to when it broke away from the supposed supercontinent of Gondwanaland some millions of years ago. Whether or not you believe this to be true, it doesn’t change the fact that New Zealand’s distance from any other land mass has influenced the flora and fauna found here. Most of the native plants and animals of New Zealand are endemic, meaning that they “occur naturally only in a single geographic area.” At one time, over 120 species of birds could be found in New Zealand, and of that number around 70 were endemic. 85% of flowering plants also are as well as 100% of reptiles, amphibians and bats. Talk about unique. So the fact that the kiwi bird is the national icon of New Zealand makes perfect sense – what better symbol to choose than something that can’t be found anywhere else?
What aren’t endemic to New Zealand, however, are dangerous creatures. Even the government’s tourism website, Newzealand.com, confidently asserts, “New Zealand has no snakes or dangerous wild animals, making it safe for visitors to enjoy outdoor activities.” Only one, in fact, can be found – the Katipo spider – which has caused just two deaths in recorded history. Australia, on the other hand, has more than its fair share of poisonous snakes, spiders, crocodiles, jellyfish, and octopi. The US has grizzly bears, mountain lions, raccoons, and moose, just to name a few potential dangers found in the wild. How New Zealand scraped by with a single spider is beyond me. Most of the mammals here were introduced by European settlers during the 18th and 19th centuries, brought to a country of birds, reptiles, and insects. Even the British explorer Joseph Banks noted in 1770, “It appears not improbable that there really are no other species of Quadrapeds in the country.” Well…fancy that.
So that’s what a trip to Willow Bank will show you: in a place as magical as New Zealand, you can be left alone at parks from pesky squirrels; you can go camping without the fear of a big, hungry black bear inviting himself along; and if you get lucky, you can bump into one of the national icons running around in the wild, or if you’re wanting more convenience…opt for the disappointment-free “Kiwi Guarantee.”