Sara Bunny talks vegetarianism with a pig and has a close encounter with kiwi and kea at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.
With a small bag of food pellets in hand, I wander up the garden path and gently shut the gate behind me. A hen clucks as I pass, wallabies look up from their games, and an ostrich stands by the fence and flaps his feathers in my face. To a background crescendo of honking geese, I watch a capuchin monkey dangle from a log, marvel at a brightly coloured parrot, and am stared down by a pair of lemurs.
Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, with its large, leafy enclosures and array of all things fluffy, feathered and finned, is a magical place. The park is made up of three sections: heritage, wild and natural. The latter is for New Zealand native species, the heritage section is home to farmyard animals, and the wild area is alive with exotic breeds, such as gibbons and turtles.
At the eel pond, park manager Jeremy Maguire dangles a piece of mince above the water and waits. A long-finned monster swims lazily to the surface, catches the morsel in its gaping mouth and sinks back into the murk. "They have tiny wee teeth, a bit like needles," he says. "I've been bitten before and it's like a lot of little razor cuts."
Jeremy has worked at Willowbank for more than 11 years, and also co-hosts a children's television show, Animal Academy, with cyclist Sarah Ulmer. As we head off to the nocturnal house for the kiwi tour, which also takes in the native section, Jeremy grabs some food for the creatures we might meet on the way.
Along a wooded track, we pass a cluster of green kakariki, a kereru in rehab and a rare eastern buff weka. Willowbank has an extensive collection of native birds, and the cheeky kea is one of the most popular with visitors. Inside the enclosure, Jeremy feeds the kea honey off a spoon. They land on his shoulders and line the fence, watching our every move with a high-pitched snigger. The spirited alpine parrots have been known to single out visitors who are afraid of birds and swoop on them mercilessly.
"They are highly intelligent," Jeremy says. "If they get too bored, they get into mischief."
We check out tuatara and some critically endangered Otago skink before stopping outside the nocturnal house to look at the kiwi displays. Willowbank nurtures kiwi eggs brought into the breeding centre from across the South Island. The eggs are closely monitored in incubators, then the chicks are reared in captivity and released into "crèche sites" when they are large enough to fend for themselves.
In the wild, 95 per cent of kiwi chicks are killed by predators, such as possums, ferrets and stoats, within six months of hatching. An adult kiwi is lucky to raise two chicks in its lifetime. Since 2005, Willowbank has had high success rates with Okarito brown kiwi (rowi), Haast tokoeka, North Island brown and great spotted kiwi eggs. Last breeding season, 90 chicks were hatched and reared at the park.
Up to eight North Island brown kiwi bred at Willowbank are put on display at the nocturnal house for educational and advocacy purposes. After adjusting to the dark inside, we spy a fluffy brown ball snuffling contentedly around a hedge, and another bird digging the ground with its beak.
As well as the dimly lit display house, the kiwi are free to roam in a two- hectare outdoor area, complete with a predator-proof fence that reaches deep underground.
Emerging from the darkness, we stop off to see Hamilton, a tame old takahe that regards humans with as much curiosity as we do him. Hamilton and his breeding partner, Guy (a female, named before they realised 'he' was a 'she'), are two of only about 160 takahe left in the world.
"I don't like keeping something for the sake of it," Jeremy says, as he explains the breeding programmes at Willowbank. "It's about conservation, and teaching people."
As I'm eager to use my bag of food pellets before I leave, we visit Hercules, the kunekune pig. With upturned snout, coarse brown whiskers and soulful eyes, he sees us approach and stands expectantly at the gate of his pen. I hold the pellets aloft and he opens wide, catching them in his mouth and crunching furiously. In a George Orwell moment, Hercules and I lock eyes, and I blurt out that I'm a vegetarian.
As Jeremy collects empty food buckets in preparation for closing time, I ask him to name his favourite animal.
"That's like asking someone to choose between their kids," he laughs. "I guess I like the misfits - things like eels and pigs. They're misunderstood."
I'll return to Willowbank to see my new furry and feathered friends, but my animal encounter hasn't yet endeared eels to me. On the way to the car park I pass the pond, and the thought of little needle teeth beneath the water makes me shudder.