Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fame is useful however: kakapo and penguins

On the weekend i drove for five hours and spent two nights in a motel in order to see Sirocco, the celebrity kakapo. It was totally worth it.

Kakapo are the world's bigest and probably rarest parrots. They are flightless, as is much of the avian fauna in Aotearoa, and their defence method is to freeze when frightened. They remind me in that sense of the dodos. When dodos heard the sound of other dodos being slaughtered, their response was to pop out of the burrows and have a look. They became extinct within a very short time. Kakapo have escaped extinction only by their adorable whiskers. There is a vigorous kakapo breeding programme and the numbers are current up (yes, up!) to 131.

Sirocco conspicuously failed at the breeding programme, because he had imprinted on humans and had no interest in other kakapo. Attempts to collect his sperm also failed. Sirocco was also aggressive, ambushing rangers on their way to the long drop toilet on the predator free offshore island where kakapo live. What to do with an adult male kakapo who was useless to his own species?

Then Sirocco became famous for his attempt to mate with a noted zoologist on Stephen Fry's TV prgramme Last Chance To See. This is worth watching on Youtube for the expression on Sirocco's face as he drew blood. Fame is useful however and Sirocco became the Conservation Department's official spokesbird. i follow him on twitter and facebook and marvel that there is somebody whose job it is to post updates and tweet on Sirocco's behalf. Sirocco has even tweeted me. i am dead keen on Sirocco. And lately he has left his home on Codfish Island for a nationwide tour, at selected eco locations.

I visited him at Orokanui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin, in a specially built cage where he can waddle along logs and ladders. He really likes people. He worked the room. When children tapped the glass he went over to them to interact with them. He indicated he wanted to be weighed (he gets a macadamia nut when he is weighed) and sat happily on the shoulders of Karen, his minder. He is a very cool kakapo.

Sirocco and his kind are controversial among conservationists. There is a strong argument that says why put so much effort into saving flagship species (especially the cute and cuddly) when less attractive species are ignored, and when there is little effort put into the whole picture of our whole environment and its whole future. Does a visit to Sirocco inspire anyone to make any choice at all for conservation? How does 'raising awareness' translate into activism, or consumer choice, or votes?

Another recent example is that of Happy Feet, the hapless Emperor Penguin who washed up on the shores of Aotearoa and had to be saved from ingesting sand. After being operated on, he was kept at a zoo, and transported to the southern oceans on a ship. He was released back into the sea, and only days later his transmitter had stopped working. He was feted throughout. There was a live TV feed to his den at the zoo. The website Our Far South covers his progress still. Thousands visited him. All up, he cost about $30,00 from the public purse, an amount not recoverable from zoo passes and merchandise. Some notable conservationists slapped their foreheads in frustration. But the zoo management felt that Happy Feet's story was great - boom time for them, but also great for raising awareness about our own wildlife. Hundreds of parents and children agreed. Happy Feet was adorable.

i think, for argument's sake, that both sides conflate two issues - the issue of animal rights and welfare, and the issue of conservation. Many animal rights thinkers understand this one well. For some vegan activists, the killing of any animal, for food or even because they are noxious pests, is wrong. The principles of animal rights and overcoming speciesism override the pragmatism of trying to get the environment to work. Meanwhile conservationists may be happy to wipe out pest species. They want to look after the environment and may hold the view that without a working ecosystem, there will be no individual animals to be principled about.

Sirocco is about conservation. He became a 'spokesbird' because he was unfit for more conventional kakapo purposes, namely making more kakapo. His story is carefully managed in order to publicise the kakapo breeding programme and the Department of Conservation. He lives as naturally as possible, on Codfish Island. He is a native New Zealander.

Happy Feet is about animal rights and welfare. Once he landed on the beach and swallowed a bellyful of sand, we would have been less than our best human selves if we had left him to die. Of course we want to make the positive difference for the one animal that is in front of us, the animal we can relate to. i agree with the conservationists who say that the Happy Feet experience will not encourage one person to work in conservation. But if we have more compassion, if we learn a little about one species that isn't our own, that could lead to more openness and thoughtfulness and care. And maybe then our world gets a bit bigger and we get to think about more of it and then we start to wonder how it works and then work to care for it and protect it.

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