A New Zealand Book of Beasts: Animals in Our Culture, History and Everyday Life

Annie Potts, Philip Armstrong & Deidre Brown


All species of moa (Dinornithoformes) have been extinct for three or four centuries. At least that is the consensus among professional palaeo-biologists; not everyone agrees with them. But whether or not moa are long dead in biological terms, culturally speaking they seem to be enjoying a vigorous afterlife. Indeed they have gone quite feral; you can spot them in the most unexpected places.

In the medieval bestiaries (or ‘books of beasts’) that this volume is named for, religious or moral meanings were presented explicitly as part of animals’ descriptions: the sheep going willingly to slaughter stood for Christian obedience to the will of God; the whale represented diabolical deception as it masqueraded as an island on which sailors could land. In assembling our own ‘bestiary’ we take it as axiomatic that all cultures, including so-called modern ones like our own, continue to attach important meanings and values to animals, most often without being aware of it. In opening New Zealand’s book of beasts, then, we are also opening the book of our culture.


A New Zealand Book of Beasts is a groundbreaking examination of the interactions between humans and ‘nonhuman animals’ – both real and imagined – in New Zealand’s arts and literature, popular culture, historiography, media and everyday life. Structured in four parts – Animal Icons, Animal Companions, Art Animals and Controversial Animals – the Book of Beasts touches on topics as diverse as moa-hunting and the SPCA, pest-control and pet-keeping, whaling and whale-watching;  on species ranging from sheep to sperm whales  and from pekapeka to possums; and on the works of authors and artists as various as Samuel Butler and Witi Ihimaera, Lady Mary Anne Barker and Janet Frame, Michael Parekowhai and Don Binney, Bill Hammond and Fiona Pardington.

In examining through literature, art and culture the ways New Zealanders use and abuse, shape and are shaped by, glorify and co-opt, and describe and imagine animals, the authors tell us a great deal about our society and culture: how we understand our own identities and those of others; how we regard, inhabit and make use of the natural world; and how we think about what to buy, eat, wear, watch and read. This is an engaging, original and scholarly rigorous book of cultural criticism and a thoughtful addition to New Zealand literature.


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Dr Annie Potts and Dr Philip Armstrong are associate professsors in the School of Humanities at the University of Canterbury and co-directors of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. Annie Potts’ most recent book is Chicken (Reaktion, 2012), a natural and cultural history of Gallus gallus domesticus; Philip Armstrong’s is What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (Routledge, 2008), a consideration of animals in the novel in English from the eighteenth century onwards. Dr Deidre Brown (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu) is a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland. Her books include Tai Tokerau Whakairo Rākau which won the 2004 NZSA E. H. McCormick Award for Best First Book of Non-Fiction, Māori Architecture, a finalist in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and the multi-authored Art in Oceania: A New History which won the Art Book Prize in 2014.


December 2013, 240 x 170 mm, 336 pages, colour illustrations
Paperback, ISBN 978 1 86940 772 8, $49.99