Photo montage: Toby Morris

Ranking New Zealand’s greatest celebrity animals

With his death going viral, Nigel the Mana Island gannet joins a proud tradition of New Zealand celebrity animals. Calum Henderson pays tribute to the creatures we’ve loved and lost.

A dead gannet is the latest New Zealand animal to attain celebrity status. Nigel, of Mana Island, made headlines around the world last week after the heartbreaking details of his death went viral. Nigel died alone after unsuccessfully courting a concrete decoy gannet on the island for the last four years.

The pitiable seabird is yet another chapter in New Zealand’s proud history of celebrity animals. Over the years a lack of interesting human celebrities has meant we have had to turn to different species to fill the void. A cat, a sheep, several dogs, an otter – all have achieved a level of fame most of us will never know.

The emergence of a new celebrity animal can lift the spirit of the whole nation. Usually they are pure, wholesome figures – blank canvases onto which we can project our innermost hopes and fears. Unlike their human counterparts, our animal celebrities rarely let us down.

It’s time we paid tribute to the celebrity animals who have inspired us through the years in the best way we know how: by assigning them arbitrary rankings.

15. Happy Feet (Penguin)

An Antarctic Emperor Penguin who somehow ended up on the Kapiti Coast, Happy Feet quickly rose to celebrity status in 2011. His arrival the same month that beloved sheep Shrek died seemed to be the universe’s way of telling New Zealand everything would be alright, that there would always be a celebrity animal to guide us. After racking up tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills at Wellington Zoo, Happy Feet was eventually put on a ship to the Campbell Islands, but the penguin’s newly-fitted transmitter lost its signal just days after his release.

14. Kaikoura Cows

Nothing illustrates New Zealand’s hunger for celebrity animals better than the cows who got stuck following the Kaikoura earthquake in 2016. While many human lives were thrown into disarray by the quake, the only ones anybody watching from afar seemed to care about were the three marooned cows after footage of their plight went viral. They were eventually rescued and returned to anonymity.

13. Sirocco (Kākāpō)

A member of the exclusive group of New Zealand celebrities famous for having a sexual encounter involving a visiting international star. Plump kākāpō Sirocco achieved viral notoriety in 2009 after performing an avian sex act on the head of zoologist Mark Carwardine during filming of the Stephen Fry documentary Last Chance to See. In another example of a sexual indiscretion failing to hinder the career of a male celebrity, Sirocco was appointed an official spokesbird for conservation by Prime Minister John Key in 2010.

12. Paddles (Cat)

In the entire history of the nzherald.co.nz Breaking News banner, few have been more shocking than the one last year announcing the death of Paddles in a traffic accident. In a matter of months the ginger and white polydactyl cat adopted by prime minister Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford had achieved a level of celebrity never before seen by a parliamentary pet. Destined to be one of the great celebrity animals, she was taken too soon.

11. The Hore Seal

Some of the most famous names in New Zealand history are those of murder victims. In 2005 a fur seal rose to fame in such fashion after being shot and killed by three men aboard a fishing vessel off the Otago Peninsula. Among the three was All Black Andrew Hore. The 83-test hooker, then 26 years old, pleaded guilty and was fined $2,500 for his part in the slaying of the protected marine mammal.

10. Spot (Dog)

Like Beaurepaires spokesman Vince Martin, Spot was an Australian who became an honorary New Zealander by virtue of his outstanding run of TV commercials. The talented Jack Russell served as a brand ambassador for Telecom throughout the 1990s, during which time the arrival of a new Spot ad was a cause for celebration across the country. Spot died of old age in 2000.

9. Charisma (Horse)

New Zealand’s most accomplished animal athlete, Charisma rose to fame after winning a gold medal with rider Mark Todd in Individual Eventing at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. The pair added a second gold medal in the same event at the 1988 games in Seoul, cementing Charisma’s reputation as one of our greatest sporting role models. He died on Todd’s Cambridge farm in 2003. He was 30.

8. Kashin (Elephant)

A long-serving corporate mascot for ASB Bank, Kashin was one of New Zealand’s most beloved celebrity animals for decades. Originally conceived as an advertising symbol for the bank in 1964, the real-life Kashin was gifted to Auckland Zoo by ASB in 1972. A crowd favourite at the zoo until her death in 2009, the memory of Kashin is now preserved in the form of thousands of plastic money boxes belonging to children nationwide.

7. Nigel (Gannet)

A tortured, romantic soul who achieved fame only after death. We haven’t really seen a celebrity animal like Nigel before, his story resonating as it does on such a deep level. Only in time may we come to realise his true legacy.

6. Dexter (Dog)

The Tux Wonder Dogs mascot from 1993 until his death in 2000, Dexter was New Zealand’s golden lab. The sight of him relaxing next to his owner, host Mark Leishman, brought great comfort and joy to the nation on a weekly basis. He was a good boy and looked very handsome in a neckerchief.

5. Shrek (Sheep)

New Zealand has never gone more hard out over a celebrity animal than when an unshorn merino was found on Bendigo Station in Central Otago in 2004. Dubbed Shrek the Sheep, the woolly creature was an overnight sensation, visiting parliament and being shorn live on Holmes. By 2006 Shrek was still famous enough to be put on a helicopter and flown out to an iceberg floating off the coast of Dunedin, where he was shorn again. Shrek was euthanised in 2011 at the age of 16.

4. Jin (Otter)

Many animals have escaped from New Zealand zoos over the years but few have survived as long in the wild as Jin. The Asiatic short-clawed otter’s 2006 escape from Auckland Zoo was one of this country’s most exciting fugitive episodes, with sightings on the North Shore stoking the fires of speculation for weeks. After 26 days on the lam, she was finally captured by zookeepers on Rangitoto, and eventually relocated to Wellington Zoo, where she died in 2010.

3. Opo (Dolphin)

New Zealand’s modern obsession with celebrity animals can probably be traced back to one friendly bottlenose dolphin. Opo rose to fame in the summer of 1955 after gaining a reputation for playing with children in the waters at Opononi. People flocked from far and wide to swim with Opo, but like so many celebrities her life was cut tragically short, being found dead under suspicious circumstances March 1956. Opo is memorialised by a statue in Opononi and was the subject of songs, children’s books and multiple documentaries.

2. Rastus (Cat)

Considering most cats will flee at the sound of a vacuum cleaner, the fact that one willingly rode a motorbike is nothing short of incredible. Rastus, with the help of owner Max Corkill, was one of New Zealand’s most philanthropic animal celebrities, raising money for the SPCA and other charities on his many rides. The pair were tragically killed in a collision with a drunk driver in 1998.

1. The Canterbury Panther

New Zealand’s most reclusive celebrity animal has been the subject of intense speculation since its first possible sighting in 1996. A large black cat, believed to be a panther or puma, has been spotted in Canterbury on several occasions over the last two decades. The most compelling evidence of its existence remains this 2011 video, in which a man can be heard uttering the words “that’s not a fuckin’ cat … that’s fuckin’ huge!”


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