Kōrero: Pets

Whārangi 2. History of pets in New Zealand

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Useful animals

On arrival in New Zealand, both Māori and Europeans needed domestic and wild animals for survival, rather than as pets. Māori brought with them kurī (Polynesian dogs) and kiore (Polynesian rats), which were killed for food. Their fur was used in clothing, and their bones and teeth were made into tools and ornaments. Kurī also helped with hunting and exploration.

European missionaries, and later settlers, brought with them cattle, sheep and pigs as a source of food and fibre, and horses and bullocks to break in farmland and transport people and goods. They also brought cats to control rodent pests and dogs to assist with sheep farming.

Both Māori and Europeans hunted native birds and marine mammals such as whales and seals for food, feathers, oil and skin. Animals were valued mainly for practical purposes. Sometimes, however, people became fond of individual animals.

Maori and pets

Māori regarded some animals as pets (mōkai). Kurī could be companions for their owners – for example, the explorer Kupe had a pet kurī, and Tāneatua, the tohunga on the Mataatua canoe, had several. Kākā (native parrots) were often kept as pets and were used as decoys when hunting birds for food. More unusual pets included eels, shags, pigeons and moa.

Sometimes animals described as pets were more like guardians, similar to the European concept of a familiar (attendant spirit). There are accounts of pet taniwha and pet whales.

Europeans and pets

Keeping pets was a luxury for early settlers, whose first aim was their families’ survival. Nevertheless, cats and dogs were introduced as companion animals and were well established by the 1860s. Groups of working men such as bushmen often had dogs or cats at their camps. People also formed bonds with working animals, and on small farms, horses and cows often had names. Some of these animals became tame. For instance milk delivery carts were drawn by horses that learned to stop at gates without having to be told.

The interdependence of animals and humans in extreme situations cemented ties between them. A dog was a vital – sometimes the only – companion for an explorer. From the late 1860s Charlie Douglas spent nearly 20 years exploring and mapping South Westland with only a dog for company (all his dogs were called Betsey Jane). When he went on expeditions in the 1880s, naturalist and collector Andreas Reischek was dependent on his dog Caesar, who saved his life on several occasions.


During the New Zealand wars of the 1860s some British regiments had animal mascots. In the first and second world wars, New Zealand troops overseas continued this practice. Organisations such as fire brigades, brass bands and sports clubs also often had mascots.

Children and pets

The role of pets in educating children seems to have been accepted early on. From the late 19th century children’s pages in newspapers invited children to write letters about their pets. The concept of the pet day developed at country schools. Children would bring their pets (including young farm animals such as lambs and calves) to school to be judged in competitions.

The ark Alpaca

The immigrant ship Alpaca carried 12 cats, two dogs and four pigs, as well as dozens of chickens and ducks, on its voyage to New Zealand in 1863–64. Passengers were entertained by the play fights between the dogs and Dennis, one of the pigs. The cats were well-fed with fish and seabirds caught by the crew and passengers, and a number of kittens were born during the trip.

Bringing pets to New Zealand

Pet animals came to New Zealand from various parts of the world. The crews of vessels often carried cats and dogs to control vermin on board, and for companionship and entertainment. These animals bred, and some may have jumped ship at New Zealand ports. Some settlers of the 1840s and 1850s brought pets with them, and wealthy people sometimes travelled with their pets.

Exotic pets such as monkeys were brought to New Zealand both by acclimatisation societies and individuals, as there were no restrictions on the import of such animals until 1895. In more recent times, pet animals have had to go through tests, and often quarantine, when imported.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Pets - History of pets in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/pets/page-2 (accessed 14 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 24 Nov 2008