Is it time to keep our cats at home?

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Cats, both wild and domestic, kill our native wildlife. We must keep them confined, writes Anna Yeoman.

A few weeks ago, on the outskirts of the town of Alexandra in central Otago, a bunch of 28 dead native lizards were found. They had been regurgitated by a cat, which had caught and eaten the 28 in just a few hours.

As a science communicator living in Alexandra, I set out to make a short video and article for Stuff about the discovery and how the scientists responded. Very quickly, the question of companion cats arose. Dr Grant Norbury, an ecologist at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, who has spent 38 years researching predator-prey dynamics, said while it was not clear whether the culprit in this case was a wildcat or a cat companionship, he had a clear message for the cat. the owners.

“A lot of people don’t think their cats are a problem. They think feral cats do this damage, and not their pet cats. But they do. They have the same instincts, they are hunters, ”said Norbury.

University of Otago urban ecologist Professor Yolanda van Heezik said it was not unlikely that this cat was someone’s pet. “It’s only 400 meters from the accommodation,” she explains. Cat tracking studies she’s performed show that pet cats can roam up to 28 hectares, much to their owners’ surprise.

“We’re not saying you don’t have a cat. But it’s about how you manage your cat to reduce damage to vulnerable wildlife, ”said van Heezik. “Ideally, people should confine their cats 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”

Dr James Reardon, herpetologist and science adviser in the Department of Conservation, was also consulted in response to the discovery. “New Zealand is unusual in that we let our cats roam. He explained that in Australia and much of America, it is much more common to keep cats indoors than to let them hunt.

And from van Heezik: “It’s like we’re a decade or two behind other parts of the world in terms of cat regulations. We must therefore go in this direction. “

So, is it time for New Zealand to change the way we raise our cats and start confining them indoors? And why, if this is the norm in North America, Japan, and Australia, aren’t we doing it already?

In 2013, Gareth Morgan put the cat problem in the spotlight. The stated goal of his campaign was to make sure cats were registered and kept indoors, but he named his campaign ‘Cats to Go’, a move guaranteed to do more to gain media attention than for diplomacy. And it certainly caught the eye.

Cats are beloved companions for so many people. One in three New Zealand households has at least one cat. It is therefore difficult to speak of our moggies as problematic predators, or to challenge their right to homelessness. Still, the solution may not be as difficult as it seems. Already in New Zealand we keep our most precious cats locked up. Purebred cats are not allowed to roam freely in the event that they are injured, lost or fertilized by a Tom without a pedigree. They are very well cared for and kept in perfect health. Couldn’t we make it the norm for all cats?

A major obstacle to confining cats to their property is that it would cause a hassle, and possibly an expense, for cat owners. If an owner wasn’t comfortable keeping their cat indoors 24/7, they should build an outdoor cat enclosure. This is what is meant by the term “catio” – a patio for cats.

In this scenario, all cats would also be microchipped and registered, so that they can be brought home if they are found to be stray. So, to justify the effort to do this, there would have to be a very good reason.

Reardon considers our native lizards to be an important part of this reason. We have one of the most diverse and fascinating lizard faunas on the planet. “We have over 120 species of native lizards. It is more species of lizards for our territory than Australia. Yet most have serious conservation issues.

Reardon explains why cat predation is such a problem for New Zealand lizards. “Our lizards evolved in a land without mammals, where birds were the main predators. Birds generally hunt by sight, not by smell, so our lizards protect themselves by being difficult to see.

It was humans who brought rodents, cats and other predatory mammals to New Zealand, all of whom hunt by scent. So when these mammals hunt our native lizards, birds and invertebrates, it is not naturally part of a food chain. And that explains why they are decimating our indigenous populations so quickly.

Small mammals like mice and rats, which evolved with cats, reproduce incredibly quickly and therefore can easily keep up with cat predation. But our native lizards can’t, and neither can most of our birds. While mice can give birth to up to ten babies every six weeks, our skinks have two to six cubs once a year. Our geckos have even less, only one or two young after a pregnancy that can last up to 14 months.

So when 21 skinks and 7 geckos were found in a regurgitated heap, that’s at least four years of breeding wiped out in a matter of hours. Shale geckos live extremely long lives, and adults could be around 40 or 50 years old. “And that’s why we have so few of our rare lizards left,” Reardon explains.

Yet surely most pet cats don’t kill 28 native lizards for breakfast?

Van Heezik agrees it will be on the higher end of predation, but explains that many cat owners are unlikely to have a clear idea of ​​what their cat is killing. “Recent studies using miniature cameras, ‘cat cameras’, show that what cats report on average is only a quarter or a third of what they actually catch and kill,” says van Heezik. Some cats don’t report any of the things they kill.

A cat (Image: Getty)

There have certainly been other records of thirty or more native lizards found in the stomachs of feral cats. And in Ruapehu in 2010, 102 short-tailed bats were killed by a cat in one week. Norbury explains that it is the scale of the problem that is so alarming. “When you multiply a day’s hunt by 365 and then by all the cats in the landscape, you understand why this is a real problem,” says Norbury.

It certainly may seem odd to consider the enormous amount of work and expense involved in the Predator Free 2050 campaign when we have cats roaming free in cities and countryside. The problem becomes particularly evident in Wellington. The city is leading the way in the eradication of rats and stoats, while at the same time the kakariki / red-crowned parakeets, which spread from Zealandia Sanctuary, are eaten by pet cats.

While ideas like spooky colorful bird collars, bells, feeding your cat well or keeping it at night can help reduce predation a bit, Norbury and van Heezik both explain that these things have limited effectiveness and don’t. at best only partially reduce. the problem. Containing 24/7 chats is the one thing that really works.

Van Heezik also raises the issue of toxoplasmosis, a disease transmitted by cats. “I’m surprised more people aren’t panicking about this! ” she says. “Once you get infected with the toxoplasmic parasite, it basically lodges in your brain forever, and this is linked to an increase in impulsive and aggressive behavior,” she explains. If our cats were confined, it would reduce the spread of toxoplasmosis.

There are therefore strong conservation and human health reasons for keeping our cats at home. But is it fair for our cats to do it?

It turns out that major animal welfare groups are also calling for registration and containment of cats. In the January 2021 edition of New Zealand Geographic, Hayden Donnell observes that “the most surprising thing about the New Zealand cat management debate is not the division it inspires, but the consensus.” He goes on to quote the Scientific Director of the SPCA, Arnja Dale, as saying, “This is a very moving question, but it is not a controversial one.

A National Cat Management Strategy Group (NCMSG) was formed in 2014 and consists of all major animal welfare groups – the New Zealand Veterinary Association, the Royal New Zealand Society for the Protection of Animals and the local government from New Zealand, with the Department of Primary Industries and the Department of Conservation participated as technical advisers.

The policy group is calling for new responsible cat ownership laws to be legislated into a national cat management law. Their long-term goal is that in New Zealand there are no feral or stray cats. May all pet cats be microchipped and deexed. And that all pet cats would be confined to the owner’s property, either indoors or in an outdoor enclosure.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association website already provides guidelines on how to keep your cat healthy and happy if they spend all of their time indoors, specifying that “If a cat is confined indoors, appropriate enrichment should be provided to improve the environment, such as climbing frames. , scratching posts and toys.

It seems far from the current situation. But van Heezik remembers how far he has come with the dogs. When she was a child, her duck, rabbits and guinea pigs were all killed by stray dogs that came to their property. “We just accepted it as bad luck, when today, of course, it’s totally unacceptable. Our attitudes have changed about what dogs should be able to do, and I hope we get there with cats as well, ”she says.

The Dog Control Act was enacted in 1996, but so far we don’t have anything similar for cats. This is why the NCMSG is calling for a national law on the management of cats. With such a strong consensus among conservation, public health and animal welfare groups, there is one more thing missing. There must be action on the matter in Parliament. And because the emotional burden of the issue is so high, it is considered too politically risky for any leader to touch. Despite calls for tighter controls on cats, Jacinda Ardern has so far remained silent on the subject.

Finding 28 dead native lizards is just a reminder that delaying the necessary change is costing the country’s vulnerable wildlife. Containment works overseas, and it works for our pedigrees. Is it really too hard to imagine that this could work for all of our cats?


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