The Kiwis and the Moas

6 Apr

Three of the giant birds dead in one night.

Flora Fleet felt overwhelmed and defeated as she stared at the row of bodies of the ostrich-like moas. What was a desperate widow like her to do?

Her husband, Albert, had passed away only two years before, leaving her a grazing ranch close to the southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island. He had failed to tell his wife of the size of his debts and mortgages. And there followed the loss of thirty big birds out of a flock of over two hundred. Three of these expired just last night.

Flora was not a country girl at all, that was clear to everyone, including her. Albert had brought her out of her hometown of Invercargill, called the capital of the friendly Southland by its proud inhabitants. It had been his father who had switched from sheep-growing to the ancient moa bird, its meat so popular in the markets of Asia. Like thousands of other New Zealand ranchers, the Fleet farm had abandoned lambs for this gigantic bird that could not fly. It was the tallest and heaviest such creature on the planet, reaching up to twelve feet high and capable of weighing five hundred pounds.

Little demand for wool remained in a world of synthetic fabrics. The Middle East now raised its own lamb meat. If anything could save the South Island’s ranchers, it had to be the moa, once hunted nearly to extinction by the tribes of the Maori.

The Chinese, with two billion stomaches to feed, had taken to eating the meat of these birds which stood from eight to twelve feet tall when fully grown.

The Fleets had taken the gamble, selling both adult and baby moas at the monthly auctions at Invercargill. The number had increased each year after that. But now these mysterious deaths had struck, threatening the financial survival of the Fleet farm.

Flora sensed someone behind her and turned about.

It was tall, lanky Gil Smith, the manager who supervised and ran the moa-raising for her. She forced a sad grin.

“It looks damned bad, doesn’t it, Gil?”

The swarthy Scotsman frowned grimly. “We need outside help,” he mumbled between his teeth. “I’ve been telling you that since they started to die off this way.

“Dr. Nairn is a good vet. If there was anything he could have done, it would have been tried. But he can’t even say what it is causing this trouble for us, ma’am.”

Gil cast his gaze down toward the ground.

“He is not an expert on the big birds. He knows sheep and cattle, but not the moa. What we need is an orno…orno…

“Ornithologist,” she pronounced for him.

“Yes, I’m thinking of a bird specialist from Stewart Island.”

“Where the surviving moas were first discovered and protected, Gil.”

“We got the first ones from the Bird Institute’s hatchery on that island, ma’am.”

Flora thought deeply for a few moments.

“Dr. Nairn might resent our having someone else look at these dead birds.” She pointed with her right hand at the row of dead giant birds.

“Piss on him, then,” grumbled the ranch manager. “It’s been little good that he himself has done for us up to now, Mrs. Fleet.” A flash of anger flamed in his dark Celtic eyes.

“Very well, then,” conceded the widow. “I’ll send a postal-fax to the Stewart Island Bird Institute this evening. We will see whether they have any interest in the loss of so many of my moas.”

Dr. Chris Read was preparing to leave on vacation to the west coast Fiordland when the request for help came in to him. He was the one who first read the magnetic fax at the Institute’s main building in Oban, the only inhabited village on the wild, unsettled island.

He perused the short, succinct sentences several times.

His main interest in life was the kiwis that had found their last wild refuge on Stewart Island. The moas, a distant cousin that had evolved to gargantuan dimensions, had never been the focus of his study and attention. That meat-producing bird had survived over centuries in isolation here. Until a serious interest their economic value had arisen, they had been only a bird-watcher’s curiosity, like the kiwi, the takaha, and the kakapo.

What should he do about this plea for aid? he asked himself. This was not the first one. Over the previous months, the Bird Institute had received dozens of similar requests for assistance from various parts of the South Island.

Was there anything that could possibly be done by him, a kiwi specialist?

The short, stubby assistant blinked his sea blue eyes, the same color as in the New Zealand flag.

Yes, he decided. On his way to his west coast vacation he would stop at the Fleet farm and have a look at the moas. Just north of Invercagill, said the fax. It would not be out of his way, or take too much time to accomplish.

His first task was to send a reply to this manager, Mr. Gil Smith. Tell the owner that he was coming to the mainland that afternoon. He would try to make it to the ranch from Invercagill at once.

As soon as he had typed his message on the fax machine, a reply began to emerge out of the printer.

Gil Smith would be at the port of Bluff to meet him when the late afternoon entamoran arrived from the island.

Well, that’s that, thought Dr. Read as he tore off the faxed reply. I guess that I’m going to have a look at some dead moas.

Chris Read envisioned in his mind’s eye the great flightless relic from the past as the catamaran crossed the blue Foveaux Strait and entered Bluff Harbor.

He knew the moa as an ancient forerunner of the kiwi. It was larger than an ostrich, emu, or rhea in other lands, and had lost the ability to fly eighty million years ago. Scientifically, it was a dinernithidae. Grazing on grass, the bird could be pastured like sheep. The Maori had hunted the various species of moa to near extinction before the coming of the Europeans. Only in the Far South, on Stewart Island, had a few managed to conceal themselves, among their relations, the kiwi. Naturalists had found and sheltered the great birds only a generation ago, as New Zealand’s land exports peaked and then declined. The South Island had experienced a dark decade of economic depression and desperation, until a completely new pasturing industry came from Stewart Island to the main Southland.

The kiwi had been a sacred bird to the Maori people. It was the hidden child of the god of the forest. That bird was now the national symbol of New Zealand, whose people had taken on themselves the name of the small, frightened kiwi, no larger than a domestic chicken.

The moa and the kiwi were so similar, yet also so different in size.

As Chris Read looked up, over a harbor building there was an orange-red sign identifying it as belonging to Moa Meat, the conglomerate that dominated the slaughter and packing of the bird’s flesh.

He felt a body chill as he stared at the refrigeration plant.

There seemed to be something mysterious and ominous about those two words, Moa Meat.

The catamaran slowed as it neared the wharves of the Bluff.

“Dr. Read!” called out a tall, skinny man with shadowy eyes. It was easy to guess that he was from the open country by his blue dungarees, red plaid shirt, and bright leather boots.

Gil Smith introduced himself and shook hands with the bird expert.

“My wagon is up on the street, sir. Let me put your luggage in the boot.” The ranch manager picked up the suitcases, while Chris took his instrument case.

Soon they were in the four-wheel drive vehicle, following the harbor road around the New River Estuary into Inversargill town.

Not until he had turned into Tay Street from Dee Street did the driver begin to talk to his passenger.

“This is Route One,” he informed Read. “It will take us north to the farm.”

In a fraction of a moment, they reached the open grassland.

“Did Mrs. Fleet inherit her ranch?” suddenly asked the bird vet.

“Mr. Fleet passed on about two years ago. It has been hard for her. She grew up in Inversargill and has no real experience out on the land.”

“The moa deaths must be disconcerting,” noted the passenger.

Gil Smith glanced at him for a second. “She could lose Fleet Farm if the mortgage payments fall a couple of months behind.” He looked ahead at the narrow, black tar roadway. “The local veterinarian, Dr. Nairn, is out of his territory with moas, if you ask me. He is an old sheep doctor from out of the past, if you know what I mean.”

“Not familiar with the big birds?”

“Doesn’t know or like them, if you want my opinion.”

Chris Read drew a long breath. “The moas have pretty well taken over your portion of the Southland, haven’t they?”

“Only a few sheep runs remain today. Most of the ranches, though, are producing moa under contract. Fleet Farm is one of the dozen or so independents left in our district. We sell our birds at summer auction, through the Agricultural and Pastoral Society.”

“I’ve been to the Summer Festival held in Inversargill every February,” declared the doctor. “Does Mrs. Fleet exhibit her moas there?”

Indeed,” grinned the driver. “We won the third prize in the competition last year.” His face turned grimly serious. “But now the very survival of the ranch is hanging in the balance.”

The motaka rolled on toward Fleet Farm.

She was a short, shapely red-head in khaki shirt and work pants. Chris somehow surmised that Flora Fleet had been much younger than her late husband.

“I’m so glad that you have come, Dr. Read,” she said in a high but pleasant voice.

“I’m actually on vacation,” he explained. “In fact, on my way to the Fiordlands.”

“You enjoy the wilderness, then?”

He smiled slightly. “I’m supposed to be a naturalist of sorts, even off the job.”

The widow turned to Gil Smith. “It looks like two of the baby birds have come down with something, perhaps a fever. I rang Dr. Nairn and he should be here shortly.”

The manager frowned. “I’ll show Dr. Read the dead ones,” he volunteered. “Then, he might wish to talk with our local vet.”

“I’d like to have a look at the sick babies, too,” announced Chris.

“When you are finished, come into the ranch house, Doctor,” she told the visitor. “I’ll have something prepared for an early dinner.”

She turned and walked away, her greenish eyes downcast.

When she was out of sight and hearing, Gil Smith spoke.

“It pains her to be in the presence of the dead bodies,” he guardedly whispered. “She is a delicate soul, she is.”

A five minute examination of the three carcasses was followed by a longer time with the two moa babies kept in a special pen by themselves.

Read used all the miniaturized analytic instruments he had brought with him from Stewart Island: a magnetic mini-scan, a remote blood monitor, and a viral meter.

When he was through, he loaded his veterinarian tools back into their carrying case.

“What do you say, Doc?” anxiously asked the ranch manager.

It was then that a white-suited man appeared from behind the two men. “Mr. Smith,” beamed a stentorian voice. “I understand there is a problem with some of the young moas.”

Gil introduced the two doctors to each other. They shook hands and studied each other in face and torso.

Peter Nairn was monstrously large in size. Tall and bulky, he loomed over the research vet from Stewart Island. There was something threatening and unfriendly about the man in gleaming white coat and pants.

“Let me see these ailing birds,” he harshly told the manager. “I would like to discuss their condition with you later,” he coldly muttered.

Chris Read and Gil Smith watched as the local vet entered the pen and made a quick examination of the two-feet high moas dying away on the ground.

The instruments he took from his small satchel were old and all but obsolete, realized the younger doctor. A country practitioner who had fallen far behind contemporary science, sadly concluded Read by the time Dr. Nairn was finished and had exited from the pen.

“What is it?” curtly demanded Gil Smith.

The big man in white gave him a hostile stare, then abruptly turned to Chris Read.

“Do you yourself have any opinion?” he barked out.

Chris seemed taken aback for a moment. “Not yet, sir,” he said in confusion. He could feel the icy glare of the country vet’s steel-blue eyes.

“It is not so easy to diagnose these moa birds out in the field, Dr. Read,” snidely asserted the giant. A viscous sneer covered the lower half of his broad face.

Dr. Nairn turned back to Gil Smith.

“Tell Mrs. Fleet it is nothing to worry about,” he muttered condescendingly. “I’ll leave you some fever pills you can put into their feed. That ought to be enough. Time and nature will bring these little birdies back to health.”

“What is afflicting them?” persisted the manager.

“Dr. Read can tell you that we still know little about how the immunity system of a moa works. There is a lot of sheer guesswork involved in treating them. I think that these babies have contracted some virus from somewhere that has brought about this fever and the symptoms of severe fatigue. My experience is that such infections end up being temporary and quickly passing. Rest, patience, and a little anti-viral medicine should be enough to do the trick.” He paused a moment to think. “I must now be going. Many appointments ahead. I’ll be away until tomorrow. I have to go to a meeting out of the area. Give my best regards to Mrs. Fleet.”

He have Chris Read a perfunctory nod of farewell, then walked off toward his long, sleek motako near the ranch house.

The pair remaining by the pen watched him drive off on his round of visits.

“What a piece of work that bloke is!” muttered Gil under his breath.

Indeed, agreed the other silently, in his mind. Indeed.

The three sat at a round table of Southland podocapp hardwood.

Chris noticed the gleaming, polished surfaces of rimu, rata, and kamahi on the interior walls and furniture of the small, one-story house.

“My husband’s father had this place furnished splendidly for his wife,” said Flora Fleet as she brought in the lamb stew she had been preparing. After placing the open roaster in front of the guest, she invited him to serve himself as he wished.

“We are mostly informal up here in the country,” she shyly laughed. “Please help yourself, Doctor.”

“Call me Chris,” smiled Read as he began to cut himself a slice of meat.

Flora took the chair between the two males.

“I have never become used to moa meat, Chris,” she suddenly informed him once the three of them had begun to eat. “Do you consume much of it out on Stewart Island?”

Read looked across at her. “Not much,” he replied. “Most islanders only buy it for holidays and formal occasions. There is still a lot of lamb on our tables. It will, perhaps, take a century to change our national eating habits.”

Gil Smith decided to break in.

“The birds meat is almost all exported from New Zealand,” he noted. “It’s all those millions of Chinese who have acquired a taste for it. With all their industrialization and new wealth, they can afford to have it shipped to Hong Kong and Shanghai. If it wasn’t for the Asian market, we’d all be out of business.”

As soon as this was said, the farm manager regretted it. He stole a glance at his employer to take a measure of her reaction to his tactless words.

Sensing what might have just happened, Chris tried to distract the hostess with an unexpected question.

“Have you ever eaten a muttonbird?” he audaciously inquired.

She looked at him with stunned curiosity.

“No, I don’t believe that I have. They thrive down near Stewart Island on the offshore isles, don’t they?”

“Yes. Qualified local Maori alone can still hunt them for a time in April. That has provided them a lucrative monopoly. Muttonbird is shipped around the world as a rare New Zealand delicacy.”

“If there was a market somewhere for kiwi meat, I wager the exporters would find a way of taking it off the protected list,” said Gil, an edge of resentment in his voice.

This statement struck a cord in the heart of the kiwi bird specialist.

“It’s strange, isn’t it, that New Zealand now has millions upon millions of moas that are slated for slaughter and export in refrigerated planes and ships. The Asian markets can’t get enough of that meat, and we are constantly converting sheep pastures to bird grazing. Europe and the Middle East have been lost to us, because the craze for moa has not caught on there. Besides, vegetarianism has grown to astronomical proportions in the West.

“But what about our native kiwi bird, the symbol of New Zealand nationalism and self-identity?

“We can count only a few hundred left alive, in the wild reserve on Stewart Island. A few kiwi houses here on South Island cater to the tourist trade from overseas. Only our Bird Institute hatches the brown kiwi that lives freely in a natural surrounding, that has not yet been forced to become a frightened nocturnal fugitive.”

“I’ve seen the kiwis at the Queenstown bird park when my husband and I vacationed on Lake Wakatopu. It was so sad, in a way. They only came out when the artificial moonlight of the kiwi house convinced them that it was nighttime. I felt sincere pity for the poor, frightened creatures.”

Chris put down his fork and sat back in his chair.

“The Maoris hunted the kiwi, but often used a temporary hunting ban when they saw the numbers go down too low. Only the chiefs had a right to consume or make a kiwi sacrifice. They wore cloaks made from the tough skin of the kiwi and warmed themselves with its waterproof feathers. The kiwi was sacred to our aboriginal population, quite unlike the monstrous moa.

“It was the Europeans who drove the kiwi to its present state of a refugee out on Stewart Island. So, I have dedicated my life to trying to maintain the life and restore the place of our national bird, the kiwi.”

Flora and Gil both stared at him intently.

“That is a very worthy ambition,” finally said the owner of the farm. But all at once, a cloud fell over her bright green eyes.

“I hope, as well, that I can help save your moas,” added Chris.

The widow began to rise from her chair.

“It’s time for me to fetch the desert,” she softly announced. “It’s frozen kiwi fruit.”

The guest stayed overnight in the manager’s cottage, a short distance behind the ranch house. Early the following morning, the two men had breakfast with Flora Fleet in the kitchen of the latter.

Brilliant, sparkling sunlight flooded in through the windows facing south and eastward.

“I want to look over the baby birds again,” said Chris once the meal was finished.

“We’ll go together,” agreed Gil Smith, rising from the table.

The originally sick pair had grown worse, the Doctor discovered as soon as his examination began.

One of the hired farmhands came running up to the pen with the ailing moas with an alarming announcement.

“Sir, something terrible has happened,” he shouted. “Several more of the smaller birds are down with this fever of theirs.”

The two men rushed after him to a large corral, where eight birds lay on the ground, apart from the rest of the flock.

“It looks like the problem is spreading,” moaned the manager.

“Let me go in and have a look at them,” proposed Chris, his instrument bag now in hand. “I want to see if they have the same symptoms and indicators.”

Gil responded with a nod to the farmworker, who opened the corral gate for them to enter.

Careful examination and testing took several minutes. Chris said nothing till they had left the wire enclosure.

“It’s now spread to these new victims,” solemnly announced the vet. “The same illness, exactly the same viral fever and physical lethargy.”

The two studied each other for several seconds.

“Would some kind of quarantine and separation help the rest of them?” asked Smith, desperation showing in his dark eyes.

“It is much too late for that, I would guess. We still have no idea how this is spreading. Perhaps it is very contagious and has already infected many birds that appear to be well.” Chris thought rapidly a moment. “There is no harm in trying a division of the herd. But I doubt it could do much good.”

“I’ll call my work crew together and have it done at once,” sighed the manager, panic visible in his shadowy face.

“What should I do now?” asked the Doctor. “I don’t have enough anti-viral for all the afflicted ones.”

Gil considered a moment. “Mrs. Fleet could take you into Invercargill for additional medical supplies.”

“I’ll explain the new situation to her.”

Chris hurried toward the ranch house, his instrument case under his arm.

The motaka sped along the tar-sealed pavement of the highway, toward the town on the south coast of South Island.

From time to time, the driver’s tiny hands trembled, Chris Read noticed.

All of a sudden, Flora opened up to her passenger.

“I could lose the ranch, Chris,” she groaned with fear. “All that is necessary is for me to miss two more mortgage payments.”

“Can’t your bank give you extra time to get things in order again?”

“It’s not with a bank anymore,” she explained. “The Otago Mortgage Company bought the paper up. They’ve done that with scores of other ranchers as well.”

“And this company is not too sympathetic, I take it?”

“That’s for sure,” she answered with an audible sigh. “Otago is a hostile, greedy outfit. There are some rumors about them.”


Flora seemed to lower her voice, as if someone might overhear.

“I’ve heard from members of the Agricultural and Pastoral Association that Otago is just a front and a device.”

“What do you mean?”

“It is a weapon of Moa Meat, for putting independent producers out of business if they don’t sign up to sell their birds to that giant exporter. They already control over 80% of the supply through monopoly contracts.”

“That’s legal?” Chris grew increasingly excited at what he was hearing from her. “Can’t something be done about such an unfair situation?”

“That corporation is extremely powerful in politics, I understand. Moa Meat is also tied in with the biggest banks up in Auckland and Wellington. No one dares interfere with what they are doing to the independents here in the Southland.”

Chris thought that he heard her sob once or twice.

“We will be in Inversargill in a few minutes,” he commented, changing the subject. “As soon as we get the supplies of medicine, we can return and try to help your moas.”

The storehouse on Bond Street stood opposite the Waihopai River, not far from the headquarters of the Southland Agricultural and Pasturing Association. In front of the corrugated metal building a blue and orange sign read “Farmchem.”

Chris accompanied Flora into the office of the large pharmaceutical company.

The white-coated chemist across the service counter gave them an unfriendly scowl.

“You’re Mrs. Fleet, aren’t you?” he began, staring at the redhead.

“That’s right,” she said, trying to grin. “I have an emergency situation on my farm and need a large amount of anti-viral for my moas. This is Dr. Read from Stewart Island. He is a bird vet and will tell you exactly what and how much to get ready for me.”

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but your account is closed until your outstanding balance is paid in full,” he coldly sneered. “If you wish our pharmacy fill any future prescriptions, it’s best to pay all your back bills at once.”

“But I have a horrible situation with my moas,” she protested with emotion. “Why should my credit suddenly be called into question in this unusual way?”

The chemist leaned a little forward, till his head hung over the plastic counter.

“Farmchem has had to change its policy,” he whispered almost conspiratorially. “We have recently been bought out and are now a subsidiary of Moa Meat. They’ve decided to stop any new credit to highly mortgaged farms not tied in with them. Sorry about that.”

Without another word, the little chemist disappeared to the rear and went out of sight.

Flora turned tremblingly to her companion. “What can I do now, Chris?”

“Is there any other possible supplier in town?” he asked.

“Not in the huge quantity I need.”

The vet thought privately for a moment. “Let’s go outside,” he finally said.

When they had entered the motaka, the two of them looked each other directly in the face.

“Drive to the landing down in Bluff, please,” he mumbled. “I believe I can get you enough anti-viral out of the inventory of the Bird Institute.”

Flora grew excited. “Is that at all possible? I don’t have the cash to pay for all of it at the present time.”

“I can obtain what you need on my personal signature. In a sense, you will become indebted to me and I will be acting as your creditor.” A grin spread across his thin mouth. “Does that sound like a good deal to you?”

Overwhelmed with feelings, Flora was silent for a brief time.

“I don’t want to cause you any difficulty at the Institute,” she softly confessed at last.

“I know that I can trust you,” he confidently murmured. “Now, let’s get on the first catamaran over to the island. We have no time to waste.”

A few minutes after parking the motaka near Bluff Harbor, the pair caught a boat across the channel. They located a seat at the front of the open, top level of the ferry vessel. A balmy wind was blowing refreshing air from out of the west, while the summer sun of February heated the deck and the passengers about the pair.

“Don’t fret,” Read attempted to sooth her. “We will get back to the farm in good time.”

She gave him a tender but desperate look.

“You are not obliged to help me.” Her eyes filled with tiny tears. “My problem is not yours, Chris.”

“Many other independent moa breeders must be in the same fix as you. The corporation is probably putting the screws to them, too.”

“They are heartless,” she uttered through clenched teeth.

He placed his right hand over hers.

“Have trust in me,” he gently whispered. “We will win this terrible battle.”

Flora looked off in the direction of Stewart Island, growing larger by the second.

“You must stay at the boat station in Obau while I go get the anti-virals,” said the vet. “It may take me some time, but then we can take the next catamaran back to the mainland.”

Until their vessel arrived and docked, Flora said not a word more to him.

As he left the boat station for the Bird Institute, she muttered a simple “Thank you, Chris.”

It was close to evening when they returned to Fleet Farm, a gigantic box filled with anti-viral medicine in the boot of the motaka.

Gil Smith and four of the staff helped Dr. Read inject the moa flock with the substance obtained at the Bird Institute. This difficult work took till after midnight to complete.

Tired and hungry, the vet and the manager ate a late night supper prepared for them by Flora Fleet. The three of them sat around the circular kitchen table.

“We won’t know the results for certain until tomorrow,” warned Chris Read. “They could go the wrong way, of course.”

The farm-owner frowned. “Dr. Nairn may be quite angry when he returns here tomorrow,” she groaned. “We did not consult with him before taking action.”

“Let him fume if he wants to.” The dark face of Gil Smith reddened with ire. “He was away from this area at the time, wasn’t he?”

“You don’t think much of him, do you, Gil?” reacted Chris. “Why is that?”

The manager drew a long, deep breath before explaining himself.

“The man is a quack who thrives off the troubles of the farmers of this district. Only the fact that he lives here and is the only local vet forces the owners to call him in. I have heard stories about him for many years now.”

“What sort of stories?” asked Chris.

Gil glanced at his employer a moment, then answered.

“For one thing, he is a heavy drinker. There is no sign of it when he is out on his rounds, but the man is known to get mean when he is on a bender.” A short pause ensued before Smith continued. “Over the years, Dr. Nairn has made mistakes, serious ones. If he had been treating humans, they might have yanked away his license to practice.”

“Most of what you’ve heard is only rumor, Gil,” interceded Flora. “Nothing has ever been proven, I believe.”

Chris Read set down his coffee cup on the table. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow. Don’t worry about it.”

In a short while, the two tired males left for the manager’s cottage.

Wild, piercing cries of pain disturbed the sleep of everyone. Chris awakened and rose from his cot. He could make out the slim form of the manager standing in the darkness of the bedroom’s doorway.

“Something is happening. Let’s go see what it is.”

The vet threw on his pants and followed Smith out into the cool summer night. The two headed for the pen holding the sick moas.

A silvery half-moon lit up the grounds in an unfamiliar manner. It was the ailing birds that had risen on their feet to shriek in the night.

The two stopped at the gate and Gil opened it.

From inside the pen, the smell of death rose into the cool air. Wails of alarm came from the moa shelters on all sides. Birds moved about in panic, crying into the night.

As they approached the inert bodies lying on the ground, the terrible truth sank into their minds. All of the infected moas had died, despite the anti-viral injections that Read had administered.

The veterinarian checked out each of them to make sure.

He rose to his feet and looked in silence at the farm manager.

“All of them?” muttered the latter.

Chris nodded that he was correct.

“What happens next?” anxiously demanded Gil Smith.

For a moment, the other man could think of no reply. Finally, he came to a decision. “I need more equipment so that precise cell-testing can be done on the corpses.”

“Where can you get that?”

“I’ll have to return to the Bird Institute in the morning.”

The bird shrieks began to fall in frequency and volume as the pair went back to the cottage.

Flora, in a pink night robe, stood on the open porch of the manager’s bungalow.

“What has happened?” she trembled. “The noise is horrible.”

Gil informed her that six more sick moas were now dead.

Tears burst from the green eyes of the widow, covering her cheeks like a heavy dew.

“I plan to go back to Stewart Island for some special devices that we have there,” explained Chris. “They could perhaps help pinpoint where the infection is coming from.”

“That might be of help?” she hopefully stammered.

“It might,” answered the vet. “At present, there is no clue whatsoever as to what is behind all this. More detailed, specific research is needed.”

She turned and spoke to her manager. “I’ll be taking the motaka down to Invercargill. You can watch over the moas while we fetch what Chris needs.” Then, she turned to the veterinarian. “We can start as soon as possible.”

“Through the night?”

“Why not? It will soon be dawn.” Flora started back to the ranch house to get dressed and ready to leave.

The first rays of sunlight spread through the starless blue sky of the dying night.

On either side of the roadway, fields of verdant tussock were growing more visible. Soon the moas or the remaining flocks of sheep would be out grazing on the grass.

Chris Read, sensing the awkwardness of the silence, began to speak to the woman who was at the wheel.

“The Southland is beautiful at sun-up, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” agreed Flora. “It is one of the things that makes our lives worthwhile. At times I’ve thought of leaving and going off to the North. A large city like Wellington or Auckland, perhaps. But then I remember some of what I would be missing if I were up there.”

Her passenger smiled to himself. “You’ve become a country girl, haven’t you?”

“Albert, my husband, would be proud of me, I think,” she sighed with a hint of sadness. “He always said it was merely a matter of time before I was acclimated to ranch life. And now I am.”

But he is gone, Chris surmised that she was thinking.

“Dr. Nairn will not like the fact that we are taking these steps without consulting him,” she declared, returning to consideration of the present situation.

“He will have to lump it, Flora. You shouldn’t be concerned about his feelings or reactions, not at all.” His voice had a tinge of anger in it. “I can’t understand why Nairn hasn’t taken more active steps up to now.”

“Like what?” she retorted.

He said nothing for a short span of time.

“I have some ideas I want to test and try out once I have the proper equipment,” he informed her as calmly as he could. “Some of them may seem a bit fantastic and far-fetched at first, but at least I can try to eliminate them as alternative explanation for what is happening to your moas.”

The sun had fully risen and morning had arrived by now.

Stewart Island enjoyed original and colorful place names: Dead Man Beach, Doughboy Bay, Murderers’ River, Yankee River, Big and Little Hellfire Beaches, Port Adventure, Chew Tobacco Bay, Port Pegasus, the Ruggedy Mountains, Halfmoon Bay, and Faith, Hope, and Charity Islands.

The Maori name for Stewart Island is Rakinsa, meaning “the glowing island”. Perhaps that referred to the long, spectacular summer sunsets.

Only island residents were allowed to bring motor vehicles there.

Chris and Flora climbed into the former’s motaka, parked near the catamaran wharf at Obau on Halfmoon Bay.

It was a short drive of a few minutes to the Bird Institute at Acker’s Point. A low building of stone and stucco stood in a thicket.

“Let me show you where I work, Flora,” said the scientist to his companion.

She followed him into a small office with pictures of New Zealand birds on the walls.

“Let me see if there are any messages for me,” he murmured, stepping to his radiofax printer. There was only one, he discovered to his surprise.

“What is it?” Flora asked, watching him tear off a few lines of print.

“A friend is worried about me and wants me to stop by and see him,” said Read. “He has heard about the moas dying all over the Southland and my interest in that problem.”

“Is he a veterinarian, too?”

“No. George Henry is a man who lives alone as a reclusive hermit on this island and devotes himself to the birds, their care and well-being. I am his only friend, it seems at times. No one else talks to him and he trusts only me. That may be because he believes that I, too, am completely dedicated to the bird life of Stewart Island.”

“Is he a madman of some sort?”

Chris stifled an incipient laugh. “No. George is saner than most people, I think. But his way of life appears very bizarre to most people.”

“I see. And the man wants to talk to you?”

“He says it is urgent and concerns the moas on the mainland.” Read smiled gently. “It will take only a minute or so, Flora, as soon as I load up the equipment that I’ll need.”

“Let’s go and see him, then.”

The pair walked briskly out of the veterinarian’s office.

The stone and crushed shell cottage was overgrown with flower bushes. Chris led Flora along the path from the road that circled Paterson Inlet near Observation Rock.

Sharp cries of kakas and wekas arose from the trees and underbrush.

All at once, a strange man in blue skirts and tattered shirt appeared in the open doorway of the metal-roofed dilapidated dwelling. His unkempt black beard was tinged with streaks of pure white. A deep outdoor tan had bronzed his skin, making it impossible to guess the age of the anchorite.

As the latter stopped and gazed at the visitors, Flora realized that he was quizzically staring at her with clouded-over eyes.

What came first, she wondered, the strangeness or the isolation?

Chris began to speak. “This is Mrs. Fleet, George. She owns a moa ranch in Southland. I am trying to deal with the unexplained deaths of her big birds. That’s why I returned here today, to take more equipment back.”

The hermit focused his blue eyes upon the face of Flora.

“You raise moas for the butchery plants?” he demanded.

The ranch-owner gave a start of surprise.

“Yes,” she managed to utter from her throat. “The farm belonged to my late husband. I knew little about moas when we married, and now I own scores of them.”

George Henry gave her a long, searching look, then turned to his only friend.

“I wanted to tell you what I know,” he said matter-of-factly. “That’s the reason I sent you the radio-fax, Chris.”

“I saw it only minutes ago,” grinned the latter, “And came here at once.”

“Come in, both of you,” said the recluse.

The interior of the small cottage was a startling surprise to Flora Flood. Neatly well-ordered, immaculately clean, it was in complete contrast to the wildly overgrown surroundings outside. Magnetoscopes, most of them on, looked out on all four sides. Shelves of microtapes filled the wall space not taken up by the viewing screens.

“Sit down, please.” The host pointed to a small torchwood table at the center of the room.

“We are in a hurry to get back to the mainland, George,” said Chris. “Our stay must be short.”

Although the two sat down, the hermit remained standing.

“I follow all the news I can,” he explained, his eyes on Flora. “There’s no way to know what events might impinge on the wellbeing of our bird life.” He turned to the veterinarian. “I have not had much sleep since the moa disease broke out. It is a terrible plague. The threat is great enough to endanger their survival, Chris.”

The latter nodded in sympathy. “I’m trying to narrow down the possible causes. My first assumption has been that the illness is carried by a virus.”

“I think it is deeper than that,” said the hermit enigmatically.

“Is that why you wished to see me, George?”

The reply was an affirmative nod of the head.

Without any indication of what he was eager to tell the veterinarian, George Henry addressed Flora as if they were the only ones present.

“I’ve stayed away from humans for many years now. People avoid me, and I try to keep out of their way. Birds are my only company, and that is quite enough for my social needs. All my time and attention goes to these avian friends of mine. I have come to know the species on this island very closely.”

He paused for a deep breath, then went on, his wild eyes on her frozen face.

“My great-grandmother was one of the Moaris who lived here before the Europeans arrived. She married a Scotsman who hunted for the whales and seals of the seas to the south. So, you see, I have a long tradition in back of me.”

With an abrupt movement, he swiveled toward Chris.

“It’s not a virus at all,” he mumbled, “but rather something much smaller.”

“Smaller?” The hermit’s only friend gave a sudden start.

The moas are, somehow, being infected by unstable proteins,” whispered the recluse in a guarded voice. “I’ve looked through old journals that write about animal diseases caused by prions.”


“Infectious proteins,” explained George Henry. “A generation ago, sheep and cattle were decimated by a severe outbreak of prionic disease here in New Zealand. The opinion of experts has been that the infection was defeated back then.”

“That was before the moa industry developed, wasn’t it?”

“Correct,” said the recluse. “And no one has ever reported a bird dying from an incomplete protein. But the connection is there, Chris, if you hunt for it. Of that I am absolutely sure.”

“But how would moas be infected?” frowned the scientist.

Henry leaned close to him. “Take a kiwi bird to the mainland with you. It will show you what is the source of all the trouble.”

Chris thought hard on this advice before leaving with Flora.

Dusk was drawing near when the pair returned to the Fleet ranch, a load of six cages containing kiwis in the rear of the ground-van.

Chris explained to Gil what his plan for using them was.

“Dr. Nairn was here and examined the corpses,” announced the farm supervisor.

“What did he say?” inquired Flora. “Has he found out anything?”


Chris Read proceeded to carry out his plan of exposing the kiwis to the same environment and conditions as the moas, releasing the six birds from Stewart Island into the large feeding corrals.

“We shall see what happens now,” he told the other two. “The kiwis will undergo great danger in this attempt of ours to save their gigantic relatives.”

The first death came soon after feeding time. It turned out to be a kiwi.

Dr. Read had the bird taken to an empty room where he could dissect it. Flora and Gil watched as he carried out his minute examination using veterinarian miniscopes and laser probers.

Two hours of intense labor exhausted the bird expert, forcing him to take a rest.

“Did you locate a prion?” finally asked Flora.

He grinned and nodded. “Now, the problem will be finding out who it was that brought the prion here.”

“Brought what?” asked a surprised Gil.

Chris Read explained what he had found in the kiwi corpse. “The smaller bird is much more sensitive to these poison proteins.”

Flora rubbed her chin. “Could it be placed into our bird feed?” she excitedly asked. “For example, as an anti-fat supplement to make the moas lean?”

“You are using such a substance?” Chris rose from his chair. “Where did you get it?”

The answer came from Gil Smith. “Dr. Nairn brought the compound to be used here about a month ago. He told me it would put muscle on the moas and reduce their fat.”

Chris looked at the body of the dead kiwi, then at the widow.

“I think we should talk to the police as soon as possible,” he solemnly declared. “What could his motive have possibly been?”

Flora sent a message by radiophone that Peter Nairn come to her farm immediately, that the situation there was now critical.

The local rural police, six strong, arrived a little after ten o’clock.

Chris described to them the details of his discovery.

“Why would Dr. Nairn be involved in such a terrible crime?” inquired the uniformed officer, frowning quizzically, with doubt in his voice.

“That I don’t know,” grumbled Chris Read. “You will have to ask him that.”

“Okay,” sneered the policeman. “We will take him in for interrogation as soon as he arrives.”

“Where is Gil?” Read turned to Flora and asked.

Gathering all the food supplement for evidence of prion,” she told him. “He should be finished soon.”

The arrest of Dr. Peter Nairn was swift and smooth. The perplexed veterinarian was too dumbfounded to protest or resist.

It was Flora who asked him the question that appeared to have no answer yet.

“Why did you kill my moas?” she demanded in a calm voice.

As if in answer to her query, a loud shot rang out from the night outside the ranch house. The arresting officer looked toward the man guarding the door.

“See where that came from,” he barked out.

Less than thirty seconds later, the uniformed deputy returned.

“The farm superintendent, Mr. Smith has committed suicide with a hand-pistol,” he gravely announced. “His body is in the front room of his cottage. A note was written and left there for Mrs. Fleet.” He raised a small sheet and handed it to his superior officer.

After a quick perusal, the latter gave it to the horrified Flora to read. She held it so that Chris Read could also make out what it said.

“Dear Mrs. Fleet,

“The game is up for me and there is only one way out to take. This all started when your husband passed away. An agent from Moa Meat asked to see me in Ivercargill and offered me the deal that he promised would give me ownership of Fleet Farm. I resented your taking over so much that I agreed to feeding the moas with the changed supplement. You were to be forced into bankruptcy and Moa Meat was to buy the ranch and make me its tenant operator.

“Until today, I thought I was taking justifiable vengeance upon you. Now, though, the prion protein has been found and exposed by Dr. Read. Too late the realization of what my hatred and greed has led me into has come. The conspiracy of Moa Meats covers all the many outbreaks of disease throughout the Southland. Ranch employees on different farms are involved in this operation, I have been told.

“I now know how wrong I have been and must take my medicine. Forgive me if you can.”

Flora looked up into the eyes of Chris.

“That explains it all,” she gasped.

The police officer spoke next.

“Release Dr. Nairn,” he ordered his deputy, then turned to Flora and Chris.

“I will have this suicide note sent to the authorities in Invercargill. It looks like Moa Meat is in for a great deal of trouble with the law. But at least this bird plague will now end.”

Chris held the hand of Flora firmly in his.

“It looks like old George Henry was right. The moas were rescued only when the kiwis were brought into this.”

The two stared at each other in agreement on that.


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