The Cat Wars
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.