Journalists spent months training kea to move road cones for summer news payoff

Fairfax will not comment on all the methods used to train the kea, in the event other news organisations co-opt them for use on different animals.

Fairfax will not comment on all the methods used to train the kea, in the event other news organisations co-opt them for use on different animals.

A team of Fairfax journalists spent months in Te Anau this year with the specific aim of painstakingly training a pair of kea to move road cones without human supervision, in order to provide what they hoped would be a “massive” news payoff come summer.

Stuff reporter Dave Nicoll, who led the team, said he and three other journalists were entrusted with the project by Fairfax bosses, who communicated to them the “vital importance” of its success.

“This thing was top secret,” said Nicoll, who hasn’t seen his family since July. “We weren’t allowed to tell anyone. Not our friends. Not our families. We got the call, and we knew we had to go.

“They said to me, ‘Dave, no one else can do this, no one else can pull this off. It’s up to you guys. I think you know what’s at stake here.’”

At stake, potentially the success of Fairfax’s entire news operation over the summer.

“Christmas time is a terrible time for news, and from this perspective, Christmas time starts, I don’t know, around mid-November, so you’ve really got to have something in the works by then,” he explained. “Everything at Christmas time is this person died, that person died, Gary McCormick will do something stupid yet potentially endearing, that kind of thing.”

Nicoll explained that having a story of “this magnitude” would change all that.

“Kea moving road cones; you can’t beat that, honestly.”

Nicoll and his team became “frustrated” in the early days of the operation, and often wondered whether it would all come together.

“These kea were never going to move a road cone,” he said. “Let alone consistently enough that we’d get it on tape. It’s honestly a miracle that we got it to happen, even after months of training.”

The journalists became so frustrated at one point that they resorted to simply tossing cones at the kea, which Nicoll said was “easily the most effective” method.

The plan came to fruition this week when the kea Nicoll’s team had been training were finally caught on tape at the Homer tunnel moving the cones in a way that “we could report, at a stretch, as being inconvenient to motorists.”

“It was like we’d landed on the fucking moon,” he recalls. “Cheers all around, we finally get to go home, see our families again, and Stuff will have so much web traffic we might not even need another animal story this month.”

Fairfax’s competitor, NZME, has yet to respond, but reportedly dispatched journalists of its own to the Auckland Islands months ago, in an attempt to train seals to write and send birthday cards to elderly people in need.