It was a surprise to many outside observers, especially those who don’t well understand the Skeptics. Paddy Freaney, Rochelle Rafferty, and Sam Waby, the trio who gained world attention early this year by their claim to have glimpsed a living moa in the Southern Alps, were invited to put their case before a meeting of Canterbury Skeptics.

The discussion was serious, friendly and good-natured, without sarcasm or hostility. Sam Waby began with a passionate defense of the claim. He’s been stalking deer up there for 30 years, he explained, but when he sighted the big bird, his rifle didn’t even go near his shoulder. He spoke with intense conviction, and was backed up by Rochelle who also said the beast was unmistakably not a deer. Beside describing his encounter and short chase after the animal, Paddy Freaney complained with some bitterness about the failure of Department of Conservation investigators to take the claim seriously.

In their coherence, consistency and sense of sincerity, these three were remarkable. No one forced them to front up. The very fact that they accepted the Skeptics’ invitation in the first place has to be seen favourably. Were the episode a hoax, it would have been far easier to have been “too busy” to accept the Skeptics’ invitation.

On the other hand, the difficulties with the story seem intractable. The apparent bird was large. Paddy claims recently to have seen damage to bushes possibly consistent with moa browsing, but where are the droppings? The site was a remote, unvisited area, but it is still implausible that a bird that large could survive undetected for so long. He readily acknowledges these problems, but sticks to the story.

After an evening in which careful intelligent questions were asked by an audience of about fifty, it was very hard to imagine the trio was lying. I had an experience immediately after the meeting that is worth relating. A handful of us remained in the bar of the University Staff Club. At one point I overheard Freaney and Rafferty talking privately in a corner of the room. She complained that he hadn’t given her enough chance to speak, to which he responded with friendly but exasperated surprise that she didn’t even want to come along at first.

The tone and content of this exchange (I don’t repeat it all) was not what you’d conceive of as coming from two lying conspirators — unless they were accomplished and well-rehearsed actors who even in private even put it on for themselves.

That’s logically possible, but few Skeptics left the meeting thinking the moa sighting was an intentional hoax. Pace Waby’s passion, still a deer perhaps, or something else. As Vicki Hyde points out, there are only three possibilities: it was a hoax, a moa, or something else. If the first is to be eliminated, and the second seems still remote, we’re driven to the third. Still, as I pointed out in an editorial earlier this year, hope for a living moa glimmers in the heart of even the driest Skeptic.

This is the one point on which all in the room agreed — New Zealand needs a moa. The big bird remains a splendid and tantalising possibility. Paddy is continuing the search. The Skeptics wish him luck.

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