But all other land predators & even non-native waterfowl remain in the crosshairs
CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand––Nationally hellbent on destroying any semblance of a natural, normal predator/prey ecology since the introduction of the Predator Free 2050 program in 2012, New Zealand might be the last place the rest of the world might expect to produce a life-saving veterinary breakthrough on behalf of cats.
But, perched near the very bottom of the inhabitable portion of Planet Earth, New Zealanders tend to see things from a different angle than most of the rest of us. It might be described as upside down.
New Zealand leads world in cats per household
“Alongside bird conservation programs that have been running for more than a century,” recently explained BBC correspondent Stephen Dowling, “the Predator Free 2050 campaign aims for the eradication of introduced pests such as rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels and possums. But one animal has been left off the list – feral cats.”
Cats have a strong lobby in New Zealand, Dowling noted: “New Zealand’s rate of cat ownership is the highest in the world. Nearly half of all households have at least one cat.”
In addition, Dowling added, New Zealand may harbor as many as 2.5 million feral cats:
No-one knows how exactly many feral cats there are in New Zealand, but the number could “almost one wild cat for every two people in the country,” Dowling said.
“Cats eat penguins”
Cats are blamed for quite a lot in New Zealand.
Alleged Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society regional conservation manager Amelia Geary, to Dowling, “They’ve directly contributed to the extinction of 11 bird species, and possibly contributed to the extinction of 10 more,” none, however, within the past 100 years, and all believed to have already been in decline before European settlement.
“Now those more vulnerable species have gone, they’ve moved on to eating everything else – lizards, invertebrates, and endangered native bats. There is evidence of them eating penguins,” Geary charged.
Cats kill lamb-eating parrots?
Continued Dowling, “The Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society has in the past estimated that feral cats could be responsible for the deaths of as many as 1.1 million native birds every year, alongside tens of millions of introduced birds. Many of the more vulnerable birds, like the ground-dwelling nocturnal parrot, the kākāpo, survive only because breeding populations were moved to predator-free islands before it was too late.
“Cats are now partly blamed for a huge drop in numbers of kea, a strong alpine parrot which sometimes preys on lambs in New Zealand’s snowy high country,” Dowling said.
“It is thought warmer winters thanks to climate change are allowing cat litters to survive over winter in these areas.”
Introduced predators replace lost predator species
Omitted from the Dowling/Geary dialog, which mirrors most public discussion of the Tweety-and–Sylvester issue in New Zealand, was any discussion of the improbability of cats either preying on penguins or on parrots big enough to eat lambs, no matter where cat litters may survive.
Mentioned only in passing is that cats, like stoats, ferrets, and weasels, prey primarily on introduced species, and much more on introduced rodents than on any others, including rats, who are also on the Predator Free 2050 hit list.
Finally omitted is that while New Zealand wildlife evolved without terrestrial predators, before human settlement brought some beginning around 300 years ago, the native avian predators took the first and greatest hit from introduced species.
Introduced terrestrial predators, in short, have replaced native predators who are gone, never to come back. Without introduced terrestrial predators, the New Zealand wildlife ecology would be largely missing an essential part, the occasional presence of those rare lamb-eating parrots notwithstanding.
“Cows, sheep, & bunnies”
“Agriculture in New Zealand is the first culprit when it comes to threats to New Zealand’s native biodiversity,” offers Lynley Tulloch, a former University of Waikato lecturer on environmental education.
“Clearing native forests for conversion to pasture,” Tulloch points out, reduced native forest cover from 80% of New Zealand to just 30%, according to the Ministry for Primary Industries.
“Where once immense and ancient tall forests predominated,” Tulloch laments, “now grass grows. Iconic trees such as the magnificent and lofty kauri grew upright and strong, providing homes for the many endemic bird and insect species that lived here. Now the pasture provides homes for cows, sheep, and bunnies,” also widely reviled as introduced pests.
“Between 1840 and 2000,” Tulloch recites, “some 8 million hectares of New Zealand native forest was cleared to make room for pastoral farms, European settlements, and the timber trade. Wetlands were also drained. The dense forest cover of pre-European times and the deafening birdsong has been replaced by clover and cows.”
But cats take quite a lot of the blame.
Against that cultural backdrop, the leading New Zealand news magazine Stuff on April 21, 2023 bannered that, “A beloved household cat has made an ‘astonishing’ recovery from a usually fatal illness, thanks to a drug made to treat COVID-19 in humans and a quick-thinking vet.
The seven-year-old cat, Stuff writer Hannah Martin recounted, “was suffering from feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a 100% fatal viral infection caused by feline coronavirus, until Auckland veterinarian Habin Choi intervened,” administering “an antiviral used to treat COVID-19 called molnupiravir.”
Twelve weeks later the cat is “back to normal,” Martin wrote, “both physically and in
“Until very recently,” Martin continued, “FIP was considered to be non-treatable. But in the past decade, studies have shown antivirals can be effective in treating FIP and particularly a drug referred to as GS-441524,” and a pharmaceutical relative called remdesivir.
“While remdesivir is available as an injection and has been used with success, it is expensive,” Martin explained, “costing many thousands of dollars,” according to Oliver Reeve, owner and lead veterinary practitioner at the Onewa Road Veterinary Hospital where Choi works.
“Molnupiravir, on the other hand, costs hundreds, Reeve said.”
“Positive for the veterinary world”
Commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases infectious diseases moderator Tam Garland, of Texas A&M University, “Feline infectious peritonitis or FIP is a horrible disease in cats. It is also horrible for their loving owners to see their furry babies suffering with the disease as it gets worse.
“So while the drug may not work as well in humans, it sounds like this is extremely positive for the veterinary world. Let us hope the company making it will see the benefit of helping animals and treating cats,” Garland finished.
Cat-killing contest for school children
Lest anyone imagine, though, that New Zealand predator haters in general and cat haters in specific have lost any of their zeal to kill cats, the Rotherham School in North Canterbury on April 17, 2023 announced a killing contest for school children under age 14, offering prizes for whoever killed the most brush possums, ducks, hares, rabbits, rats, geese, and feral cats.
First prize for each category was $250 in cash and a chance to win a $4,600 dirt motorcycle––an off-road instrument hugely destructive to flightless birds and ground-nesting bird habitat––in a drawing.
As many as 1,000 children were expected to participate.
“Disqualifying dead cats with microchips”
“In a now-deleted social media post,” reported Molly Swift and Kaysha Brownlie for Newshub a day later, “participants were told to familiarize themselves with the difference between non-feral and feral cats, as they would be disqualified if a microchipped cat was found in their collection.
“The post linked a Department of Conservation website on feral cats, but that page noted feral cats can have the same appearance as some common house cats.”
New Zealand Department of Conservation principal scientist Craig Gillies told media that the contest rules were a misuse of the DoC webpage on feral cats.
“Feral and domesticated cats are the same species. Determining a difference between the two is virtually impossible,” Gillies emphasized.
“Disqualifying dead cats with microchips is too little too late,” pointed out SAFE for Animals spokesperson Will Appelbe.
The North Canterbury SPCA also registered a strong objection to the inclusion of cats on the hit list.
Hardly anyone, however, except Tulloch on many occasions in the past, put in a word against the inevitable cruelty to the other target species, or against the whole notion of teaching children to kill for fun.
Before the end of the day on April 17, 2023, the North Canterbury Hunting Competition organizers cancelled the cat-killing category, due, they said, to “safety” concerns, as if sending children out with guns to blast any species does not pose the same safety issues.
“Vile & inappropriate messages”
“We acknowledge concerns that were raised,” the North Canterbury Hunting Competition said via Facebook, but went on to whine about having received “vile and inappropriate messages and emails” since the announcement of the new category, which was withdrawn over “safety” concerns.
Responded longtime Newshub political broadcaster Patrick Gower, “If they’re going to hunt, and there are feral cats in the way, then we have to wipe them out. Feral cats need to be shot, they need to be run over, they need to be trapped, they need to be wiped off the face of Aotearoa, New Zealand.”
That reflects the more familiar global image of New Zealand.
Jamaka Petzak says
Sharing with gratitude…and a lot more. Having lost two beloved cats to FIP — one to wet-form, one to dry-form — I celebrate this victory over a terrible scourge and hope that it will become more affordable.
As to New Zealand’s misguided and callous policies toward cats and other predators, it is beneath contempt and will, as have all other such ill-advised programs, end up exploding in their faces.