Man’s pest friend: a brief history of rodents in New Zealand

As efforts ramp up to save New Zealand’s native wildlife from invasive species, Johnny Crawford looks back wistfully on the centuries-long relationship between humans and rodents in Aotearoa.

I think all of us can agree that New Zealand has a pest control problem. Our native species have long been terrorised by introduced ones from which they never evolved to protect themselves. These include small, cute mammals like lagomorphs (rabbits, hares), marsupials (possums, wallabies) and mustelids (stoats, ferrets, Jin the otter). But the smallest and cutest introduced mammals in Aotearoa belong to the order with the longest history here. As we prepare for the eradication of all wild rodent life on the archipelago, let’s pour one out for the enduring, complicated relationship we’ve shared.

I should begin this piece with a bit of a disclaimer. Despite being completely sincere in my environmentalism, there is a non-native mammal in my apartment. I am spending the year rodent-sitting my friend’s chinchilla and to be honest, I’ve become quite fond of her. If I lived in Southland (or Australia), it would be illegal for me to harbour a chinchilla but what can I say – I’m a terrible Zealandia member. I know this makes it seem like I’m part of the problem, but generations of inbreeding for their fur have rendered chinchillas remarkably fragile. If little Willoughby so much as caught a whiff of puriri she would keel over and die.

Willoughby the chinchilla with her former owner (Photo: Esther White)

This fondness many of us have for an animal species that shouldn’t be here at all is the massive contradiction at the heart of the relationship between tāngata and rīroi. Rodents have caused widespread destruction in Aotearoa just as they did in Europe during the Middle Ages. But this has occurred simultaneously with centuries of peaceful, productive, even loving coexistence.

So as the age of rodentia in New Zealand draws to a close, we should look back and remember the times we have shared, good and bad.

1280 – The first of New Zealand’s documented wild rodent species, the kiore is brought to New Zealand by Polynesian settlers. There are used as a source of meat and pelts. Kiore pose a threat to native flora and fauna but this is negligible compared to the carnage that will follow.

Two kiore, NZ native rats, on Little Barrier Island. Photo: teara.govt.nz

1772 – While he is in the process of claiming the largest ocean on the planet for the British Empire (despite it already being widely discovered, documented and settled), Captain James Cook logs the first sighting of the Waitoreke. This cryptid is described as a cross between a beaver (a rodent) and an otter (not a rodent). The possible existence of this elusive creature is notable as it would give New Zealand a native land mammal that isn’t a bat. Sightings of the Waitoreke continue throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Late 1700s – The second, and largest, documented wild rodent, the Norway rat is accidentally and carelessly introduced by early Pākehā settlers. They pose a much more direct threat to native birds than kiore and have none of the utilitarian value.

1824 – The first house mouse arrives in New Zealand (via Australia obviously) when a ship runs into Ruapuke Island. Its distant descendants will become the bane of your Aro Valley flat.

This little fucker

Late 1800s – The final member of the big four introduced wild rodents, the ship rat, is brought to New Zealand. It quickly displaces many of the larger Norway rats to become lord of its fellow introduced subjects, a rat king if you will.

The 20th century – A quiet hundred years in rodent news. The population of introduced rodents explodes along with their human cohabitants. People start keeping rodents as pets. More people see the Waitoreke.

February 2015 – Rodent sweethearts Hansel and Petal are married in a modest ceremony at Wendelton Guinea Pig Village in Richmond, Nelson.

May 2017 – Six year-old Taumaihiroa Tawhai-Porter pens a letter to the Ministry of Primary Industries in both te reo and English asking for a hamster for her birthday. The ministry responds by reaffirming its anti-rodent stance, pledging to keep Aotearoa hamster-free and denying the little girl her birthday wish.

June 2017 – While in Waiuku for my granddad’s 90th, I notice that the guests sharing the motel with my family have a horse float despite being conspicuously horseless. Upon closer inspection, I realise that the float is full of guinea pigs that have been brought up from the South Island for the National Cavy (wanky word for guinea pig) Convention. We head along to the Waiuku College auditorium where the ceremony is taking place and are greeted by the most bizarre sight. A podium is set up at the front of the room where the cavies are placed and judged while they remain absolutely motionless. In the interim, the other contestants use all manner of hairdressing equipment to groom their cavies. One of them is styled to look like Donald Trump. It is a lot to deal with.

October 2018 – The national rodent biomass skyrockets when proud capybara parents Pepe and Iapa welcome an ‘unusual’ number of pups at Wellington Zoo. Thankfully, they manage to sustain a healthy sex-life post-childbirth.

Wellington capybara Iapa with one of her cute-as Cerpyboodles. Credit: Wellington Zoo.

May 2019 – Shit goes down on the ‘Chinchillas of New Zealand’ Facebook group. Aside from the occasional thread containing photos of chinchillas auto-fellating, the group is usually relatively benign. This changes when a member accuses another of mistreating their chins and receives a strongly-worded DM from someone who accuses them of causing “a bunch of unwanted drama”. The OP posts a screenshot of the DMs claiming that “New Zealand has such a disgusting abundance of bullies.” The stakes have never been higher in the New Zealand rodent community.

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June 2019 – Sensing change in the air, the rodent forces attempt to stage one last stand. On one side of the skirmish is the human inhabitants of the Auckland suburb of Titirangi. On the other, a guerrilla force of rats the size of cats. Despite a valiant effort from the furry monstrosities, they do little to disrupt the road towards Predator Free 2050.

2050 – Maps of New Zealand need to be redrawn to account for the rising sea levels. The boiling ocean makes many coastal areas unliveable. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have ravaged much of the population. God emperor Peter Thiel declares the last of the rodents are “lost in time, like tears in the rain”. He does not see any irony in the fact that he is still here.

As New Zealand’s birds hope to re-inherit the land that has been rightfully theirs since their dinosaur ancestors left, we should take a moment to thank the defeated upstarts. Sure rodents might have fucked things up real bad here, but their cuteness is undeniable.


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