The national animal of New Zealand is the kiwi – a brown, chicken sized bird, which is all-round weird. The kiwi is a strange choice. Yet New Zealanders are kiwi mad. They named themselves Kiwis. They renamed Chinese gooseberries Kiwifruit. They named a bank Kiwibank. They named a retirement fund Kiwisaver. They stuck pictures of kiwis on the stamps, the money, and the air-force (despite the fact that kiwis are flightless). Kiwi, kiwi, kiwi! Kiwis are everywhere.
Which is strange.
Real kiwi are pretty much nowhere.
Most New Zealanders have never seen a wild kiwi. In most places where people live, kiwi are extinct. Paradoxically, the less contact New Zealanders have had with actual kiwi, the more attached New Zealanders have became to kiwi. Should the kiwi ever go extinct, logically New Zealand will be renamed Kiwiland. It is inevitable.
Kiwi-mania is perplexing. How can a nation become so extremely fond of an animal they never see? It’s like being fond of the Dodo.
New Zealand isn’t the only place to have a made an odd choice. The national animal of the Mauritius is the Dodo. They love it. It’s dead. The English lion is even less real. The last time England had lions was… was… yeah. But that can’t top the Scottish. Their national animal is a unicorn.
These bizarre choices show us how we got national animals in the first place. The Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland are heraldic symbols from centuries ago. They were never meant to be real. Okay, the Scots did think unicorns were real, but the point is they are emblems. Symbols.
Places lacking suitable medieval heraldry can pick themselves some outstanding real animal. Or some outstanding fake animal. Asia loves its dragons. North Korea went for a winged horse. Indonesia has the humanoid bird that gets ridden by Lord Vishnu. Laugh if you like, but the truth is all national animals are imaginary. Some just happen to refer to real animals too.
National animals are symbols. The less something is a concrete reality the easier it is to make it into a symbol. As the kiwi slid towards extinction, New Zealanders were free to project onto the word “Kiwi” whatever they wanted. An animal became a symbol. A national animal. With kiwis gone, “Kiwis” no longer needed to worry about being confronted with the bizarre nature of actual kiwi. The symbol was safe.
So why do we bother with national animals? Well, all our friends have got them. Beyond that…
All of them like to indulge in personification. All need symbols. To make a good political cartoon you often need to draw a character that represents the nation. Animals with a distinct cultural history work well. Then you can draw your disliked politician riding that animal, hitting it with a whip. That kind of thing.
Propagandists have the same need. Their ads need something distinctive that represents what they’re trying to sell. Patriotism needs a face. Hence all the lions, bears, dragons, and eagles doing all their roaring, breathing fire, and swooping majestically. Vote for Steve. Let’s go to war. Buy my boot polish. That kind of thing.
As a young country, New Zealand was in desperate need of new symbols to establish its identity. Hence a little over-enthusiasm with the kiwi. It’s a teenage thing. They’ll get over it. Hopefully.
Yet, the kiwi is still a strange choice. The Bald Eagle? Majesty. Power. Got it. The Russian bear? Danger. Power. Got it. The Kiwi? It’s a furry football with legs, whose greatest claim to fame is being able to push out an egg that is equivalent to a human giving birth to a four year old. Oh New Zealand! Sure the giant Moa and man-eating Haast Eagle were extinct, but why pick the kiwi? I see your sense of humour, but where is your pride?!
Perhaps that’s it.
National animals don’t get picked in a rational way. They just happen. Something about it just works. And the kiwi knows that New Zealand is small, cute, weird, unsure, and occasionally comical. And it doesn’t care. And it was easy to draw. Still, judging by the Scots and their unicorn… New Zealand should have picked the Taniwha. No one messes with a supernatural water monster with face tattoos.
Further Down the Rabbit-hole:
Read more about the kiwi, it’s life as a bird, and its life as an icon. From Te Ara, the encyclopedia of New Zealand. Here.
The origins of the Scottish unicorn, from the Scotsman. Here.