The Kuri was a dog breed kept by the indigenous Maori of New Zealand prior to that Island’s conquest by the British Empire. The Kuri played a very important role in the lives of the Maori, who used the breed for protection, food, clothing, weaponry, tools, decoration, religious rituals, hunting, and companionship. Most believe that the Kuri was relatively uniform throughout New Zealand, but others have suggested that it was more variable in appearance. All agree that the breed was relatively small and fox-like. The Kuri was held in very low regard by New Zealand’s European settlers, who considered it highly inferior to their own dogs. The Kuri eventually went extinct as a result of disease, lack of interest, and interbreeding with European dogs. The Kuri is also known as the Peropero, New Zealand Indigenous Dog, New Zealand Native Dog, Polynesian Dog, and the Maori Dog.
The Kuri was a descendant of the ancient Polynesian dogs, much like the Maori were descendants of the ancient Polynesian peoples. The history of the breed began with the domestication of the very first dogs. There is a tremendous debate among researchers as to when, how, and where the domestication of the dog took place. It is now almost universally agreed that the dog was the first species to be domesticated by man, and that the process was complete by 14,000 years ago. Most, but not all, experts agree that there is conclusive evidence for the existence of domestic dogs at least 30,000 years ago, and some genetic research has indicated that the process may actually have begun 100,000 years ago. Until the advent of genetics, it was unclear what or how many species the dog had been domesticated from. Recent testing has confirmed what was long suspected, that the dog was solely descended from Canis Lupus, better known as the Grey or Common Wolf (or possibly the Indian and/or Tibetan wolves which may or may not be separate species). Early studies came to the conclusion that the wolf may have been domesticated dozens of times, but genetic testing has disproved this theory. It is now widely accepted that dogs were domesticated in either one or two events which took place in the Middle East, India, China, or Tibet.
The earliest dogs were very similar to their wolf ancestors, and probably were nearly identical to the Dingo of Australia in appearance and temperament. At the time that the dog was domesticated, all of humanity lived in nomadic or semi-nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Dogs served their prehistoric masters as camp guardians, hunting aides, food sources, beasts of burden, and treasured companions. Dogs proved so invaluable that they quickly spread across the world, eventually coming to be found everywhere that humans settled with the exception of a few remote islands. In fact, dogs made it possible for humans to survive in places where they had not previously been able to, such as the Arctic. Despite their differences, all dogs and all wolves remained the same species and capable of producing fertile offspring. Prehistoric dogs almost certainly were intentionally and unintentionally crossed with native wolf populations wherever they went.
During the Ice Ages, so much water was contained in the polar ice caps that sea levels were significantly lower. A great deal more land was exposed, including a stretch of land that connected the island of Taiwan to Mainland China. Between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago, the first human settlers arrived in Taiwan, almost certainly bringing their dogs along with them. These dogs were probably half-way between a Dingo and the Spitz-type dogs commonly found in East Asia such as the Akita Inu, Chow Chow, and Korean Jindo. At some point, very primitive dogs also reached New Guinea and Australia (which had been settled between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago by humans) where they were allowed to run feral, essentially reverting to wild animals.
Over time, both the ancient New Guineans and the Ancient Indigenous Taiwanese became skilled seafarers and set off across the unimaginably vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean. These two groups began to settle the tens of thousands of Pacific Islands, although the exact pathways which they followed are a matter of great dispute. The two groups met and intermingled to a certain extent in the Western Pacific, forming several new closely related cultures. Their dogs also intermingled, becoming an amalgamation of the Spitz-type breeds of East Asia and the Semi-wild dogs of New Guinea and Australia. These cultures adapted to the often harsh and trying conditions found on Pacific Islands, discarding some domestic species and taming others. Eventually settling on a suite of crops and livestock that was both well-suited for life on remote islands and capable of being carried hundreds of miles on small wooden crafts, the Polynesian Peoples embarked on perhaps the most arduous migration in the history of humanity. There were only three domestic animals which were a part of Polynesian Culture, the dog, chicken, and pig. These creatures were carried across the Pacific, along with the Polynesian or Pacific Rat which was an unwanted stowaway.
As a result of life in the Pacific, the Polynesian Dog, known as the Kuri or Kuli in most Polynesian languages, became a much different animal. Lack of food resources on most islands meant that it shrank in size. As the only mammal species which managed to colonize any land East of Australia were bats, the hunting instincts of dogs were dramatically reduced. Since most islands were quite isolated, hundreds of unique varieties of dog developed, each unique to its home territory. However, since these same islands were usually small and allowed for minimal genetic diversity, the dogs of each island were generally quite uniform in appearance. Living in close quarters with humans meant that less aggressive and more tame dogs were highly favored, and the dogs of Polynesia became considerably softer-tempered than their Austro-Asiatic forebears.
Although the exact date is highly debated, the first Polynesians most likely arrived in what is now New Zealand around 1280 A.D. These settlers discovered an Eden-like paradise, the last major landmass other than Antarctica to be devoid of human inhabitants. At the time, New Zealand was home to massive populations of Moas, gigantic flightless birds vaguely similar to a slow moving, wingless Ostrich. There were no large land predators other than a gargantuan eagle and a much smaller owl, and no mammals of any kind other than two species of bat. Thousands of miles from Asia, the ancestors of the Maori did not bring pigs or chickens along with them, only domestic dogs and the Polynesian Rat. Initially, the lack of prey was not a problem as the first Maori were able to hunt the Moas and other flightless bird species found on the island, as well as steal their eggs. Although not bred for hunting large creatures for centuries, the Kuri undoubtedly maintained sufficient hunting instincts and skills to aide its masters in tracking and killing the slow moving and nearly defenseless birds of New Zealand. The seas around New Zealand are also some of the richest in the world, providing an abundance of food for those capable of exploiting them. However, as has been the case across the world, human beings were not capable of properly managing the resources provided them by nature. Within a few hundred years, the last of the great Moas had been hunted to extinction, leaving only their much smaller cousins the Kiwis. Many other species of birds and reptile were also eliminated, including the eagle. Food became much scarcer as a result, and the Maori increasingly turned to their crops and seafood to survive. However, a large number of bird species continued to survive on the island and the Maori continued to use the Kuri to hunt them until Europeans first arrived.
Because the dog was not only the only domestic animal that the Maori kept, but also the only land mammal larger than a rat found in New Zealand, it took on even more important than in most places. The dog was the only source of fur and leather that the Maori had access to, and they used the animal extensively for both purposes. The Maori made capes, belts, and any other imaginable article of clothing out of dog skin, as well as blankets, rugs, pouches, and a number of other artifacts. The Maori also attached dog hair to their weaponry, as it moved around as the weapons were used providing a distraction to their opponents. The teeth and bones of dogs were also highly valued, and were used to make artwork, fish hooks, and weapons. Perhaps most importantly, dogs were regularly consumed as food, providing one of the few readily available sources of protein after the last Moas went extinct. When Captain Cook first visited the islands, he tried the meet of the Kuri and reported that it tasted as good as lamb. It is unclear whether the Maori actively killed their dogs to use their hides, bones, and flesh or whether they waited until the animals died of natural causes. The few surviving reports seem to be conflicting and it is quite possible that each individual tribe had different customs regarding their Kuri. It is also clear that the Maori treated the Kuri as a treasured companion. Numerous reports describe its good temperament, and there are numerous accounts of how Maori women kept Kuri as pets, babying them in much the same way as a modern Westerner would. The high regard with which the Kuri was held is evident from the fact that several Maori tribes wrapped the unused remains of dead Kuris in cloths and buried them. The Kuri also helped the Maori defend themselves. Limited resources meant that there was an incredible amount of competition between the various Maori tribes, competition that very frequently erupted into violent warfare. The Maori were also known to be cannibals who ate the flesh of their victims. The Kuri barked to sound the alarm when an enemy war band or thief approached, preventing the tribe from being taken by surprise and killed in their sleep.
The Kuri also came to feature very prominently in Maori mythology. Some tales were told specifically about the dog, and many others included it. The deity responsible for protecting the Kuri was named Irawuru. According to the tale, Irawuru was extremely lazy, a trait shared by the Kuri itself. The demigod Maui was so angered by this laziness, that he transformed Irawuru into a Kuri by pulling his ears, nose, and tail. Many other stories tell of how the great explorer Kupe became the first to discover New Zealand, although each tribe had its own unique account. Almost all of them mention that Kupe brought Kuri with him on his journey, implying that the very first Maori to arrive in their new home possessed these dogs. One story tells how one of Kupe’s dogs jumped from his Tokomaru canoe one night. The dog swam to the shore of New Zealand, and then howled for his master to follow, guiding Kupe to land. Many stories mention that he left at least one, or possibly two, dogs behind. Some claim that one of these dogs was left behind in Hokianga Harbor. The heartbroken animal waited so long for its master to return that it turned to stone. The Maori who lived in the vicinity of Lake Taupo insisted that it was haunted by two stone Kuri, although not one of the ones from Hokianga Harbor. These two dogs would howl out into the night. If anyone mistook those howls for a live Kuri and called out to it, a storm would arise and drown them.
Perhaps the most valuable story in terms of understanding how important the Kuri was to the Maori can be seen in the tale of the Ngati-Kuri Tribe, who were originally known as the Te Ngati te-awa. According to the tribe’s traditions, The Te Ngati te-awa were driven from their traditional home in a fierce battle in which most of their warriors were killed. The few remaining men, as well as most of the women and children, were led by their aged chief into the mountains. They settled in a location that was easily defensible by even a few warriors. They raised the male children to be fierce warriors, and also attracted the castoffs of a number of local tribes. The Te Ngati te-awa were famous across New Zealand for their dogs. The Te Ngati te-awa not only kept an unusually large number of dogs, but also ones which had unusually long coats. These long coats were highly prized for making blankets, rugs, and weapons, and brought the Te Ngati te-awa a fair amount of wealth and prestige. However, what the Te Ngati te-awa most desired was revenge against those who had driven them from their homeland. When the tribe’s numbers had recovered, its chief decided that it was time to get vengeance. He desperately wanted to attack his mortal enemies, but knew that to attack their position would be suicidal as it was well-fortified and the numbers were against him in any case. The wise chief came up with a plan strangely reminiscent of that of Odysseus and his Trojan Horse. The chief ordered that every dog in the village be killed. This greatly angered the women, who much treasured their pets and shed many tears at their loss. The skin of all the tribe’s Kuris were tied together in the shape of a mighty whale, and sticks, rocks, logs, and plants were placed inside to give it the proper shape. Unwilling to let so much meat go to waste, the Te Ngati te-awa held a great feast which much placated the upset women. The fake whale was left on the beach nearby the Te Ngati te-awa’s enemy’s settlement. Thinking that it was a very rare boon from the sea, the entire tribe rushed to the beach to bring it back to their settlement. In the meantime, the Te Ngati te-awa occupied their settlement. Not expecting to find danger, none of the enemy’s warriors had brought their weapons with them. The Ngati-Kuri mercilessly slaughtered their enemies when they returned to their homes, and held a great cannibal feast to consume their flesh. Because of this Kuri-skin whale ruse, the Te Ngati te-awa became known by a different name, the Ngati-Kuri.
In addition to the many tales about the Kuri, the dog also played a significant role in a number of Maori religious rituals. The flesh of the Kuri was consumed at several religious feasts. Every tribe held slightly different beliefs and rituals, so the use of dogs varied from tribe to tribe. Some tribes worshipped the war-god Tu. Before battle, Tu demanded a sacrifice, usually that of a human. In certain circumstances, Tu would be satisfied with a dog sacrifice instead, which was obviously much preferred. In the case of a Kuri sacrifice, the offering’s heart would be cooked on a spit until Tu was satisfied. At that point, the priest would consume the heart. Another war-god was also worshipped by some tribes, either instead of or in concert with Tu. This god’s name was Maru, and he also demanded sacrifices. Maru would take human sacrifices, but was always satisfied by that of a Kuri.
Many reports describe how the Kuri was fed. The Maori, who themselves were heavily reliant on sea food, primarily fed their Kuris with scraps of their catches. Some sources claim that the dog was actually a vegetarian, but this is almost certainly impossible given the nature of the canine digestive system and Maori agricultural practices. The Kuri also almost certainly was responsible for providing some of its own food, and this dog was undoubtedly a determined hunter of birds, rats, bats, and reptiles. The Maori probably shared all of their table scraps with their Kuris, including human remains. In 1774, Captain Furneaux wrote, “We found no boat, but, instead of her, such a shocking scene of carnage and barbarity as can never be mentioned or thought of but with horror, for the heads, hearts, and lungs of several of our people were seen lying on the beach, and, at a little distance, the dogs gnawing their entrails.”
When the Kuri first arrived on New Zealand, it was slightly larger and heavier than it was when Europeans arrived. This is probably a combination of two closely related factors. Larger dogs were necessary to hunt the giant Moas, and they could be fed by the birds’ great amounts of flesh. When the largest prey species remaining was little more than ten pounds, much smaller dogs could be used. Also, considerably less meat meant that there was considerably less food for the dogs to consume leaving them with a much sparse diet. Smaller dogs were more capable of surviving on less food and they began to prevail. Other than a mild reduction in size and weight, the Kuri is thought to have changed only in the most minor ways from its arrival on New Zealand until the arrival of Europeans, a belief supported by studies of Kuri bones.
It is unclear how common Kuris were prior to the arrival of Europeans. Almost all of the first accounts provided by Europeans of the Maori mention their dogs, although most describe them in a highly disparaging manner. This seems to imply that these dogs were spread throughout New Zealand and that they were a common sight in Maori villages. However, some sources seem to indicate that they were not particularly numerous. The possible, and likely, explanation for this discrepancy is that while Kuri were present in essentially every Maori settlement, different settlements kept different numbers of these dogs.
The Kuri was probably bred in complete isolation from the rest of the world after the first Maori settlers arrived. It is very likely that every Kuri descended from a very small number of individual dogs that made it across the waves. It is quite possible that on occasion a seafarer arriving from another island group arrived on New Zealand bringing a new Polynesian dog or two, but such occurrences would have certainly been very rare indeed and in any case would have brought a dog nearly identical to the Kuri. This meant that the Kuri likely had a very small gene pool, leading to its relative uniformity of appearance throughout New Zealand. It is commonly, although not universally, accepted that Spanish and Portuguese explorers charted the coasts of New Zealand several years before the British Captain Cook arrived and greatly enhanced European awareness of the islands. Both Spanish and Portuguese expeditions regularly carried breeds such as Malteses and Podengo Portuguesos with them both to provide companionship and to kill rats. It is quite possible that these Iberian seafarers left behind a few dogs in New Zealand, which then interbred with the Kuri. Some dialects found in Northern New Zealand also referred to the Kuri as the Peropero. As this is quite similar to the Spanish name for dogs, “Perro,” some linguists have suggested a possible connection. If the Spanish and/or Portuguese did leave dogs behind, it would have been a very small number and therefore such animals would have had only a minimal influence on the Kuri.
The British Empire began to take control of New Zealand in the 1800’s, having to fight a number of pitched battles with the warlike Maori in order to do so. The British had a very low opinion of the Kuri, considering it ugly, stupid, lacking in sense of smell, and a poor hunter and herder. In fact, many early Europeans did not even believe that the Kuri was a dog at all, instead believing it was a type of tame fox. Some Europeans shot Kuri and mounted them as they would any other wild animal. As was the case everywhere else that the British settled, they brought their dogs with them. They greatly favored these dogs and almost exclusively bred them. The Maori too were greatly impressed with the trainability and usefulness of European breeds, and began to keep them as well. The Kuri began to be extensively interbred with European breeds such as scent hounds and Collie-type dogs. By the middle of the 19th Century, the Kuri had lost much of its uniqueness, and pure-bred Kuris were becoming increasingly rare. Although rarely mentioned, disease almost certainly played a major role in the disappearance of the Kuri. As an isolated population, the Kuri almost certainly did not have any resistance to diseases common to European dogs such as rabies, distemper, and parvovirus. In a time before advanced veterinary care, these conditions were quite numerous and almost certainly spread from European dogs to the Kuri. Countless Kuri were almost certainly killed off as a result. By the 1870’s, the Kuri was extremely rare, and it was widely believed that the animal was nearly extinct as a distinct breed. A mother and her male pup were thought to live on in the densely wooded region between Waikava and the Mataura Plains. These two dogs were hunted by a man named Anderson, who had them mounted. These two dogs are now part of the collection of the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. It is now widely accepted that the Kuri was extinct as a unique breed by the end of the 1870’s. It is possible that some of its genes live on in the mixed-breed dog population of New Zealand, but if so only in a much diluted manner. In all probability, the only way that the Kuri has survived until the present day is as specimens in museums, skeletal remains in archaeological digs, and in the mythology of the Maori people.
Almost all descriptions of the Kuri are remarkably consistent. The Frenchman Crozet writing of his travels in 1772 described the breed as, “The dogs are a sort of domesticated fox, quite black or white, very low on the legs, straight ears, thick tail, long body, full jaws, but more pointed than those of the fox…” The descriptions provided of these dogs almost all mention how fox-like they were, with a long body, short legs, thick bushy tail, and upright ears. Most reports describe the dog as being either solidly black or solidly white, the preferred coat colors for use in weaponry and blankets. Those few mounted specimens which have survived are almost all solidly white or very light cream dogs. Some reports include brown and multi-colored dogs as well, and it is highly likely that such colors were also found, at least in a few populations. Taxidermied specimens seem to have highly slanted eyes, although that may be a result of poor preservation than an accurate representation of the animal itself. It is widely believed that the Kuri was remarkably similar across New Zealand, and did not exhibit the geographic deviation common to dogs in some areas. This would appear to be in tune with the presumably small genetic heritage of the breed and similar environmental conditions found on the islands. Some researchers believe that there was greater variety between Kuri populations, including Taylor White, but these opinions are still in the minority. It does appear that the length of the Kuri’s coat was variable, with some dogs having longer coats than others. The longer-coated Kuris were apparently held in higher regard than the others because they provided more quality fur.
It is interesting to note that several researchers have conducted in depth studies of the Kuri bones found at Maori archaeological sites. These studies have concluded that the Kuri was remarkably similar in bone structure and size throughout New Zealand, and that it remained virtually unchanged from the time that it arrived on the island until it went extinct. As has been previously mentioned, there was some diminishment in size as the centuries wore on, but that is pretty much it.
Most of the reports of the Kuri’s temperament came from Europeans who held the breed in very low esteem. It is therefore somewhat difficult to get an accurate assessment of what the breed was actually like. However, the most common description of the breed said that it was lazy, an opinion apparently shared by the Maori. In this case, the term lazy almost certainly means that the breed was very low energy, and possessed very little working drive. Some British sources described the dog as dull and sullen, by which it is unclear if they meant depressed or stupid. It could very well mean both as both terms were used to describe the breed. It is quite possible that the breed was actually lazy, unintelligent, and depressed, but it may also be that such traits were the result of the effects of malnutrition.
Other descriptions of the Kuri are quite conflicting. For example, the dog could be extremely affectionate and friendly with the Maori, who greatly treasured them as pets. However, many Europeans found the breed to be extremely disagreeable, including Crozet who attempted to take them on board but found that it, “Was impossible to domesticate them like our dogs—they were always treacherous, and bit us frequently.” This seems to indicate that the Kuri had a temperament common to most primitive breeds such as the Chihuahua, Akita Inu, and Chow Chow, whereby it bonded very closely to its family but was very suspicious and unfriendly with strangers.
The Kuri was used as a hunting dog for hundreds of years, in addition to being responsible for providing itself with extra food. As a result, it almost certainly would have exhibited a very high degree of aggression towards other animals, seemingly confirmed by Crozet when he said, “They would have been dangerous to keep where poultry was raised or had to be protected. They would destroy them just like true foxes.” This animal aggression would likely have been even more extreme as the Maori kept no other domestic animals which would have tempered it. It was stated that the breed had a poor sense of smell, but that may only have been in comparison to European hunting breeds or possibly because birds are hunted primarily by sight rather than smell.