New Zealandís Apex Predator

New Zealandís Apex Predator

I love cats as much as your average white girl. I tear up a little bit when I see them doing something cute, and I will quite happily watch video after video after video of cats I don’t know doing their cute shenanigans, like not landing a jump, hiding in boxes, and mewing. Heck, I even own a cat, which I have approximately 1000 photos of on my phone (no joke). 

In conducting interviews for this article I got to meet with other people who also like and love cats. During one interview with the SPCA I was standing in a room of cats starved for attention and was overwhelmed with emotion when one fur baby literally climbed into my arms for a cuddle. It was amazing. At another interview the interviewees brought along a litter of four week old kittens. I have to say, these have been the best interviews of my life. Nothing will ever top it. 

The point of saying all this is communicate the fact that I love the shit out of cats. My cat brings me joy like nothing else can. These fluffy little babies are the best part of my life. So, it is with a heavy heart that I say: we have a serious cat problem in New Zealand that requires our immediate and focused attention. Cats cannot continue to dominate New Zealand the way they have been for the last century and a half, and we cannot keep breeding the creatures. They’re a pest. And when they are a household pet, we need to be 100 percent more responsible for their behaviour.

There are a lot of things that the colonialists messed up for New Zealand. One of these thing was introducing a whole series of mammals; mice, rats, rabbits - as well as the cat. When the populations started to get out of control, in a stroke of genius, farmers in the mid 20th century decided to tackle the unregulated rodents by introducing, you guessed it, more cats. Jeremy Anderson, a Master’s student at the University of Otago making a documentary about a stray cat colony in North East Valley, explained that “cats were widely released initially to control the rabbit population because the sheep farmers were losing productive land to the rabbits.” In around the 1890s, they introduced ferrets, stoats and weasels to continue to tackle the rabbit population. After attaining the various mammals they probably said something like “she’ll be right” starting off a good ol’ fashioned kiwi tradition. And of course, she wasn’t “right.” Instead, in the decades to follow cats took over the landscape, not only reducing the population of rats and mice, but also contributing to the extinction of nine native bird species in New Zealand. They have contributed to the endangered status for 33 other species, and will likely continue to kill them off if nothing is done to stop the cat’s reign of murderous terror. 

Before the introduction of mammals in the form of humans and the pests we brought along with us, New Zealand was dominated mostly by birds.The only land mammals native to New Zealand are a couple of species of bats. Everything else that evolved here was either a reptile or a bird. That’s why we have such a diverse and amazing population of native bird species, and why we were home to the glorious Moa and the Haast’s Eagle. By the time cats came along, the Haast’s Eagle, historically the largest native predator in New Zealand, was long gone. So there was nothing to balance out the quickly growing cat population. Instead, cats became the apex predator of New Zealand with nothing else to bring them down. Except for humans, of course. 

To this day, the population of cats in New Zealand continues to be a problem. Anderson said there was an estimated 20,000 stray colonies alone in Auckland. Colonies can be anything from two cats to 100 cats. So this could, hypothetically, be anything from 40,000 to 2,000,000 stray cats living in the urban areas of Auckland. “Welcome to my world,” said Dr. Helen Beattie, BVSc., Director of Animal Welfare at SPCA Otago “it’s so unmanageable.” Beattie said that the “stray cat problem in Dunedin is fairly representative nationally,” and that “it’s a nationwide problem.” 

If you’re not concerned about the native birds, or the large amount of cats populating New Zealand (who knows, maybe having 2,000,000 cats crawling all over you at once is a dream of yours), perhaps I can tug at your heartstrings instead. The welfare of cats is at jeopardy here as well. Many of these urban stray cats do not make it past a few years of life. They’re starved without reliable access to food and water, many are rife with disease and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), they’re suffering and unhealthy. These aren’t the happy, healthy cats you have on your lap at home, it’s the terrified, hissing, and hurt cat, living off your trash at night. If you love, and care for cats, you should understand that this is a serious issue in terms of the welfare of these animals.

Beattie explains first that there is an important distinction between domestic, stray and feral cats. Domestic cats are lap cats that live in your house. Stray cats are cats that are defined as relying on human resource, “so that could be someone choosing to feed them, or indirectly from garbage cans. Also cats that live around farm houses. Any cat that is getting resources from humans.” Lastly, feral cats live in the bush, “you’re lucky to ever see them and don‘t have anything to do with humans. They are totally self sufficient and are taken care of by DOC.” 

Part of the problem is that there is no legislation to deal with stray cats. Beattie explained that there’s no legislative requirement to deal with the cat problem. In terms of what the SPCA can do, if a cat is stray, healthy but unsociable - it’s not her area. They don’t have the resources to take in every stray cat in Dunedin. The DCC doesn’t have a dedicated plan for the cats. Compare that to dogs - if there were stray dogs roaming the neighbourhood, the DCC would deal with them by taking them to the pound. This is tragic, but there’s something in place to deal with the problem. Cats are essentially a pest, so if you have one in your yard there’s no one to call to deal with the problem. In fact, it’s your problem. “Currently, if no one takes responsibility or ownership for a cat that enters or roams in your backyard, then in essence it is no different to any other ‘pest’ that you may not want in that location" said Beattie. But most people are not comfortable with disposing of cats in the same way they are with mice. 

So what other options are there? Animal Rescue Network here in Dunedin work hard to make a difference to the cat problem. The organisation is made up entirely of volunteers and all money comes from the generous donations of supporters and fundraising events. They pick up stray kittens, get them fixed, and rehome them. They do not euthanise cats unless the cat is severely unwell or injured. “Rehoming kittens is the priority” said Ana Andrianova, one of two volunteers from Animal Rescue Network that I met up with. Sharon Pine, another volunteer, said that it is a “constant struggle to get enough money to continue our operations,” despite the fundraising events, donations and support from volunteers. Andrianova said that the situation in Dunedin is “pretty bad” and the result of “generation and generation of cats breeding and breeding and no one doing anything.” She explained that unfixed “cats can get pregnant at four months old, and will have three litters of kittens a year.” This really puts the size of the problem into perspective when you consider the number of stray, unfixed cats.

They also practice Trap Neuter Return (TNR), which involves capturing urban stray cats, getting them neutered at the veterinarian, and then returning them to the same location. The idea is that the cats are now unable to breed, and they will also continue to occupy the area until they die, preventing from other cats moving into the territory. Beattie explains that “the one cat doesn’t make a difference, it’s about controlling an area. So you go in and start with this area, and another area, and eventually your areas will meet up.”

TNR is a great idea, it’s definitely a good initiative which could help to solve the cat crisis. However, there are a few catches that go along with it. Beattie explains that “if you trap a cat and contain it, and manipulate the cat surgically, you are absolutely responsible for that cat under the animal welfare act.” You need to provide clean food and water for that animal. There needs to be a dedicated person caring for the animals. So this isn’t feasible for most students. Most of us shift every year or so, and even if we don’t, most only remain in Dunedin for five years tops. Cats can live a good twenty years. If you shift, you’re abandoning that cat. Leaving it behind without access to food and water is cruelty. The SPCA in Dunedin hasn’t gotten involved in TNR, Beattie explains, because “until it’s targeted and managed, it’s essentially a waste of funding.”

Any person who chooses to practice TNR on any cats in their area is now responsible for that cat for the rest of its life. It’s quite a commitment to make - so a lot of people don’t. Someone renting in town out the back of a popular cafe in Dunedin was caring for a cat colony. However, recently the landlord found out about them, and has given the cats four weeks to be rehomed, or they will get them destroyed. This may seem harsh of their landlord, but they’re completely within their rights. The Animal Rescue Network is working on rehoming the cats now. There is no point in practicing TNR, or caring for colonies unless you know you are A) allowed to have cats on the property, and B) that you will be there indefinitely. It’s irresponsible otherwise.

There are plenty of good volunteers associated with The Animal Rescue Network, but it’s not enough to tackle the size of the problem both locally and nationwide. Anderson explains that organisations like Animal Rescue Network are “doing what they can, but it’s piecemeal.” He also argues that this “shouldn’t be the responsibility of the kindness of strangers, but people do because they are completely affectionate, lovely animals.” He says that while “rehoming is a great idea, but there’s still too many cats.” “We have to do something immediately, so what are we going to do?” 

Beattie, too, sees the flaws with TNR, and questions on whose shoulders the responsibility should sit. She argues that the issue needs to be managed all at once, and in a highly “controlled fashion.” The cats need to be fixed, but Beattie asks, “who is paying for it? Veterinarians can’t do it for free, they’re running a business. Who is responsible for cats?” 

When faced with this situation it’s easy to feel totally overwhelmed. The Animal Rescue Network, and other organisations like the Cats Protection League and Cat Rescue in Christchurch, will continue down the path they have already been treading. While what they do is not going to be enough, it’s still helping, and it’s more than nothing at all. They’re doing good work, finding homes for cats that suit them and neutering every cat they come across. 

Anderson, on the other hand, thinks we should treat them as we would in any other pest. Looking at the sheer amount of cats in New Zealand and the issues they’re causing for the environment, he said that “you could definitely have a decent crack at euthanising a lot of them. If you’re serious. You aren’t going to rehome them.” “It’s just is not sustainable.” Ideally, he wants to shift people’s thinking of cats from pets, to pest. However, Beattie suggests that this may not work, with cats back filling into the area, and also argues that we should consider the psychological welfare of the people having to kill the cats. This is a tough solution, but highly practical. Anderson explains that “the science settled in terms of how much damage cats do.” “There’s just too many of them.” Something drastic needs to be done now. 

Beattie is working with a team of people to find practical solutions to a very serious issue. She is involved in the National Cat Management Strategy Group, who are trying to create legislation to put to government so that stray cats are no longer nobody’s problem. “The critical thing is that it has to be managed” she said. “There needs to be a mandated, legislative requirement around this because when you leave it to local authorities there’s never enough funding in the pool. Needs to be done at a national level. Therefore mandated, and then it’s a criminal offense to break the law, and the by laws are rolled out at a local government level. That’s a long process. In the long term that is what I see needs to happen.” Beattie believes that “we have to change culture around we see and interact and expect cats to exist in our lives.”

While the hardworking and dedicated people work on fixing cats, shifting mindsets and write up legislation, they all agree on multiple things that students can do right now to help.

The first, and best thing that any student can do right now is not to get a cat. Unless you have a permanent residence, the income to feed, fix and treat your cat when it’s sick, and the dedication to keep your cat until it dies, don’t get a cat. Both Anderson and Beattie expressed the importance of not owning cats if you live near an ecologically sensitive area, or any kind of sanctuary where native wildlife may be residing. Any cat you do own, ensure that it is fixed and never breeds. There are already enough cats in New Zealand breeding at an uncontrolled and alarming rate. Don’t buy bred cats, and don’t buy cats from a pet store - only ever get a cat from somewhere like the SPCA or Animal Rescue Network. Keep your cats in at least at dusk and dawn and put a bright coloured collar on them with a bell to help prevent them from catching birds. Talk about this issue with people you know, raise awareness of the seriousness of the situation in New Zealand. Lobby Government to take this issue seriously and bring about change to the way cats are dealt with in New Zealand. Donate to the organisations already set up and working on tackling the issue. If you’re desperate for attention from cats, perhaps you could foster kittens for the Animal Rescue Network. It involves caring for the kittens temporarily and getting them used to human contact. Change the way you think about cats, and make a difference in New Zealand. This issue can’t go ignored any longer.

At the end of the day, Helen Beattie asks “if you had to choose between a cat, or the kiwi, what would you pick?” I know that while I love my cat dearly, I choose the kiwi. It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

 

If you’re interested in fostering, donating or volunteering for Animal Rescue Network New Zealand, then check out their website to get involved:  arnnz.org.nz

Jeremy Andersons film, Toxic Zombie Death Machines ... a love story, premieres with other Masters Students films at The Regent Theatre at 7.30pm on Friday the 28th of October. 

This article first appeared in Issue 24, 2016.
Posted 11:09am Saturday 24th September 2016 by Laura Starling.