Kurī were Polynesian dogs which gradually died out in New Zealand. They were descended from the dogs brought to New Zealand from Polynesia, on the ancestral canoes of the Māori people in the 13th century. Kurī became bigger and more active than dogs on other Polynesian islands. Their average weight was between 13 and 15 kilograms.
Kurī were small, long-haired dogs about the size of a border collie. They had a small head, pricked ears, a terrier-like snout and a powerful jaw. The shoulders and neck were heavy, the legs were short, and the tail was bushy.
Some were black, some white, and others a combination with patches or spots. Some had yellow coats.
The kurī was also known as gurī by Māori in the South Island. Another name, pero, made some believe that kurī had been introduced by Spanish settlers, as perro is Spanish for dog. ‘Kararehe’ was later used by Māori to refer to any four-legged animal.
The term ‘Māori dog’ probably arose from ‘kurī māori’. But this actually means ‘[any] ordinary dog’.
Kurī, like other Polynesian dogs, did not bark, but howled. The sound was described as a ‘long, melancholy howl’, like that of a fox. The Māori word for its howl was ‘auau’, while the bark of the European dog was ‘pahupahu’.
Wherever Polynesian explorers travelled they would take dogs, pigs, chickens and rats. All except the kiore (Pacific rat) were domesticated, and they were all eaten. However, only kurī and kiore arrived in New Zealand. With no pigs – a source of protein in Polynesia – kurī became an important substitute.
In early Māori settlements, kurī probably had greater access to food, including moa and seals, than at later times. They were probably also more plentiful in the early days, which would explain why such a high percentage of dogs slaughtered for food were young. Their meat would have been tastier, and there would have been less need to retain breeding stock. During the later settlement period, kurī were fed mainly on fish, and slaughtered dogs were more likely to be adults.
When did kurī die out?
It is unclear when kurī died out. Although scientists travelling with Captain James Cook saw the dogs throughout New Zealand (on voyages between 1770 and 1779), they probably became rare through cross-breeding with introduced dogs, and then disappeared altogether.