The Cat Wars

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH -

We started find­ing feath­ers in early sum­mer, young fledglings usu­ally. Then flap­per duck­lings pulled into cover. A cold pheas­ant’s nest with a trail of down nearby. Time to make this go away, but feral cats aren’t stupid. Here in the South Is­land, the first prob­a­bly went wild in the 1850s and many gen­er­a­tions later we see some im­pres­sive ge­netic throw­backs: heav­ily mus­cled types with beefed up teeth and claws.

I tried all the usual things, spot­light­ing and live traps, but for once came up short. Just one fleet­ing glimpse of a large shape hun­dreds of me­tres down a fence line — gone in a flash. We live in farm coun­try, a long way from neigh­bours, and I know their pet cats. This wasn’t one of them.

Not long af­ter that a hen went miss­ing from the chicken run. A solid bird, he’d hauled her un­der a hedge and chewed her head off, but ate noth­ing. The mud gave away the story — a huge tom. It got me think­ing about the whole cat de­bate. Like Aussies, Ki­wis have a high rate of cat own­er­ship and the ev­i­dence is clear that cats are far more ef­fec­tive killers than most own­ers re­alise. They at­tack ground-nesters like ducks and quail and are im­pli­cated in a va­ri­ety of ex­tinc­tions. Here in New Zealand, the en­tire world pop­u­la­tion of the Stephens Is­land wren may have been ex­ter­mi­nated by a sin­gle pet cat.

So this is one case where hunters, gree­nies and all the other un­likely part­ners could be work­ing to­gether. There’s only one prob­lem: peo­ple love cats. I don’t mean the crazy cat fans who stalk my Face­book page (hello ladies!) but the ev­ery­day mums and even quite a few gents who find com­pan­ion­ship in them. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a free coun­try. Who doesn’t know some­one whose life is bet­ter for hav­ing Os­car purring around the house?

There are lots of cat own­ers and they vote. There is no cali­civirus equiv­a­lent for cats used in New Zealand and even if there were (and the govern­ment gave free jabs to pro­tect do­mes­tics), there would still be some hor­ri­ble deaths of pets. Long story short, pol­i­tics means that bi­o­log­i­cal con­trol of the feral pop­u­la­tion will never hap­pen.

Do­mes­tic cats in deep­est sub­ur­bia usu­ally hunt com­mon species. Even then, the at­tri­tion rate drops if the cat has a col­lar and bell. (I know they can hunt with a bell, but stud­ies sug­gest it cuts mor­tal­ity by half or more.) It’s not fool­proof, but no game of odds is. Then there are feral cats. They can’t be re­ha­bil­i­tated into pets — once the win­dow for do­mes­ti­ca­tion in their early weeks has closed they will al­ways be wild, will al­ways roam and kill in­dis­crim­i­nately.

Ul­ti­mately, most cat prob­lems come from hu­man be­hav­iour. Not know­ing how much they kill. Not car­ing how much they breed. Kit­ten dump­ing. Not in­ter­ested in other wildlife. So ban­ning cats (as some coun­cils have pro­posed) isn’t re­ally about cats at all, they’re propos­ing a ban on ig­no­rance. Good luck with that.

Neu­ter­ing is, of course, the way to go. Deep down, Aunty Dorothy knows that Puss is a bit of a kit­ten fac­tory, but neu­ter­ing is an ex­pense. It’s a bet­ter re­sult for the cats — fewer un­wanted kit­tens, fewer slow deaths from ex­po­sure, star­va­tion or disease. It’s al­ways bet­ter to deal with a prob­lem at source than at the other end of the pipe.

And what is at the other end? Preda­tor con­trol. Crazy cat ladies, close your ears. Feral cats are a com­plete men­ace in the bush. Many peo­ple will tell you they kill for fun and cer­tainly I of­ten find birds neatly be­headed but un­eaten. Whether the killer does it for fun or is guided by in­stinct to kill, stash and re­turn later, I can’t say, but cer­tainly many of those vic­tims were never touched again.

Iron­i­cally enough, one of the fre­quent vic­tims of feral cats is the pet mog­gie. Bites in­vari­ably in­fect quickly and fer­als of­ten carry dis­eases like fe­line AIDS, which you don’t want Os­car to cop a dose of. Be­tween that and the men­ace to bio­di­ver­sity they de­mand the full tool kit — trap­ping, bait­ing and shoot­ing. The hunt­ing life isn’t al­ways about hunt­ing, there’s a game­keep­ing el­e­ment to it as well.

Which brings us back to Big Tom. He re­mained un­pre­dictable, never fell for any of the con­ven­tional tricks. But they al­ways make one mis­take and, if you’re ready, that’s enough. There will be oth­ers — it’s a war you don’t get to win — but you can slow the tide.

Later that sum­mer a wild Mal­lard nested in a strip of planted cover right where that tom had been liv­ing. Preda­tor free at last, she got al­most all of her brood to in­de­pen­dence … but that’s a story for an­other day.

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