National Animals: Why New Zealand? Why?

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…

Blame cartoonists.

And politicians.

And advertisers.

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.




Strange Green Bedfellows

Flicking through an organic gardening magazine I noticed something strange. The advertising. Most was to be expected: chicken coops, garden tools, eco-tours. Then I saw a full page ad for a gluten-free conference. Huh? Do organic gardeners all have Coeliac disease? What does gluten-free have to do being green?

This sent me digging.

Most of the time environmentalism attracts what you’d expect: scientists, hiking enthusiasts, disillusioned nuclear weapons engineers. But then weird things keep popping up. What’s with all the dreadlocks, bongos, and pot? Why the anarchists, feminist, and spiritualists? Why, why, why, of all the people in history to have felt compelled to go green, do we find Nazis? Yes, turns out some of them were into animal welfare, organics, and mass murder.

What is going on here?

The key is this:  Green, and Green Plus. Plus free-love. Plus gluten-free sandwiches. Plus world conquest by the Aryan master-race. Figuring out what the Pluses have in common with Green, is the key to seeing why they didn’t just stick with their Plus but went and jumped in bed with Green. There are at least four points of contact:

1) Love of Nature

Obviously. Hence why the Animal Rights types jump right on in (and get one hell of a shock when they discover that Green can involve murdering truckloads of cute animals. It’s called pest control folks.) This also explains why spiritual types get involved. If Mother Nature is literally your god, then you’re going Green.

2) Raging Against the Machine

Environmentalism has big beef with mainstream culture and the powers that be. Hence the anarchists, feminists, and anti-globalists. Indeed, anyone who is counter-cultural, anti-consumerist, or wanting to live a simple life is going to feel good in bed with Green. Hence the hippies, the pot, and yet more spiritual types.

3) Turning Back the Clock

The modern world is an environmental disaster movie. Anyone who idolizes the pre-modern past will find Green alluring. This backwards gaze can get a bit romantic. So romantic it deserves a capital R.


Romanticism was so Romantic that it was a movement, and it had a big shape on who we are today. Central was an obsession with nature and the past. Consequently, Green gets yet more spiritual types, Thoreau musing beside Walden Pond, and the Nazi’s.

Yes, those damn Nazis.

Combine a love of the local, with a romantic view of the past, with a taste for myth and folklore, with a longing for a deep connection between a people and a place, and out pops nationalism. Pushed to it’s extreme, nationalism becomes fascism. Blood and soil, as the Nazis used to say.

This anti-modern streak can also go anti-science.  Science is just far too modern. They just don’t say “Holistic” enough. Hence the occasional foray into pseudoscience.

4) We are LOHAS. We are Legion.

Finally we circle back to those gluten-free ads. How does an advertiser choose where to place their ads? They target a defined demographic. This one’s called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. These are your ethical consumers, concerned about their own health, and the health of the planet.

Our final set of the weird Green mash ups, therefore, are due to demographic effects, and due to businesses targeting the lucrative market that is LOHA$. Marketers will throw anything at these guys that they think they’ll like. Some of it will be because LOHAS are green, some of it will be because LOHAS have an over-abundance of well-to-do middle aged women. Hence the wealth of organic wines, and the poverty of deep fried organic chicken nuggets.

So why those gluten-free ads? Perhaps it is because Coeliacs spend 28.42% of their lives reading labels asking “What is E-6i500 flavorant really?” then discovering that it is made from coal tar and endangered Guatemalan tree snails. Or perhaps it is because a greeny’s concern about pollution progresses to a haunting paranoia about what’s really in our food, which then progresses to a general concern with purity, and gosh-darn it, if gluten is a problem, then gluten is out! In a polluted world Health and Green tend to merge, hence LOHAS.

Nature, activism, anti-modernism, and demographics. Distinguishing the Green from the Green Plus is important for making sense of Green weirdness, and it’s also important for moving environmentalism forward. Much of what is accepted as core Green is actually optional. You don’t have to be a Green Plus. You can just be Green.



Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

For an example of Green’s perennial attraction for spiritual types, along with the kind of stuff that makes scientists cringe, see Biodynamic Agriculture, here.

Unfamiliar with Romanticism? Try here on Wikipedia.

Nazi organics haven’t gone away. Read “The Right-wing Organic Farmers of Germany” from the New Yorker here.

For an example of what LOHAS marketing looks like on the inside try the Natural Marketing Institute, here.