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How One Man and His Dog Rowed More Than 700 Kākāpōs to Safety

Don Merton with the kakapo named after Richard Henry.

The kakapo is native to New Zealand, a flightless and rather friendly bird that smells like papayas. They evolved under no threat from predators until humans arrived, yet they weren't endangered until weasels and ferrets were introduced in the 1860s to control the invasive rabbit population (the best-laid plans and all that). The kakapo's declining numbers alarmed taxidermist Richard Henry.    

In 1893, in Auckland, New Zealand, 48-year-old Richard Henry was going through a peculiar midlife crisis. It wasn’t for any of the usual reasons, such as a failed marriage (though he had one) or a failed career (though he had been chasing a dream job for several years), but rather it was over his obsession with flightless, moss-colored parrots called kākāpōs. Henry had observed the birds’ steep decline after mustelids, such as ferrets and stoats, were introduced to the country, and had spent much of the previous decade trying to convince scientists that the birds were in real danger of going extinct, write Susanne and John Hill in the biography, Richard Henry of Resolution Island. But Henry, who did not have traditional scientific training, went unheard by scientists. On October 3, a deeply depressed Henry attempted to shoot himself twice. The first shot missed and the second misfired, and Henry checked himself into the hospital, where doctors removed the bullet from his skull.

Henry recovered, which was good news for the kakapos. He spent years hunting the birds and taking them to safety. While Henry's efforts were akin to sticking one's finger in a dyke to hold back a flood, his ideas are being resurrected today in order to save the last 211 kakapos in existence. Read about the kakapos of New Zealand and the man who tried to save them at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: Errol Nye, National Kakapo Team, DOC. enye@doc.govt.nz)


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