Ata Whenua, Aotearoa New Zealand

March 28, 2021

Kea.

As I've ventured further south, I finally met the living thing I've been looking forward to most: the Kea.

They're New Zealand's indigenous alpine parrot. Brightly colored, super intelligent, and just as curious as we are.

I met my first one this past week on a mountain pass, and it was one of the highlights of my life.

I pulled off the road after spotting him, and the next few minutes were just an exercise in cross-species communication. We played hide and seek, negotiated what was ok for biting and what was not, and overall, spent a few minutes each thinking, "Hunh. You're weird, but I think also kinda cool. Ok, bye!" The closest experience I have to it is hanging out with a friendly dog. There was real communication, and joyous curiosity.

If you spend time looking, you'll find videos and stories of Kea up to all kinds of hijinks. Laughing. Making snowballs. Hitching rides and teasing people with stolen goods, only to give them back when the people stop trying to get them. More than any living thing I've met on earth, they remind me of us: incessantly curious, too smart for our own good, and confident we can handle whatever life throws at us.

And, well, they should be. They have no natural predators, and no issues with habitat or food shortages.

Except that Keas are also critically endangered, because of a part of the story that's less fun to tell. See, today, there are around 5,000 Kea in total.

But go back a hundred years, and in the span of a few decades, we killed 150,000 of them. Traded in their beaks by the bucketload for a few pence at the local government office. Seems they were harassing sheep, and the colonizing Europeans decided they needed to go.

When I first found out the story - about two weeks ago now - it shattered me. How could we be so stupid? So heartless? So fucking awful to slaughter these amazing, brilliant, hilarious creatures by the thousands?

I went through all the stages. Anger (count number 92,231 against colonialism). Bargaining (maybe I can contribute to a recovery fund!), back to anger again.

I vacillated between fury and heartbreak. Outrage. Sadness. Balled fists. Tears.

It was so clear to me that this was abhorrent and wrong, and that the original invasive species - us - were the only ones to blame.

And then in a moment, a thought caught me.

What makes me think we're any smarter now?

And that - I didn't have an answer for. It's easy, especially these days, to condemn the racism and sexism and phobia-based thoughts of our ancestors. Easy to see that burning all the world's supplies of oil in a 200-year bender as an objectively terrible idea. Easy to say that slavery and colonialism and religious tribal wars and all the assortment of awful things we've done over the past few millennia are truly awful things done by people we're grateful to no longer be.

Except that we still are those people. Same DNA. Same intelligence. Same cognitive biases and same emotional wiring.

I think of the inescapable conclusions that waited for me at the end of Rwanda's genocide museum: that we don't know why, but that genocide seems to be something that human beings do.

I think of all the other blind spots we have, of how easy it is for me to avert my eyes, my heart, my emotions when I'm tired or have a belief system or just want something bad enough not to care.

And it leaves me no more sympathetic to the people who slaughtered the Kea. But also certain that right now, we're doing something equally terrible. We just don't know what it is yet.

And that - that hasn't gone away yet.

Have an honest week, -Steven

p.s. The best thing I saw all week picked me back up. It was the kiwi-as How to Dad. And a puppy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cgmVRt0i23U

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