Culling cats: 'Destructive pests' or 'really important pets'?

There are calls to add feral cats to the list of predators New Zealand aims to eradicate by 2050.

The move is seen as vital to protecting our fragile native species, but the views of pet owners is a stumbling block.

Predator Free 2050 is New Zealand's highly ambitious goal to eradicate some of the predators posing enormous risk to native birds and animals.

The predators being targeted are:

  • Stoats
  • Ferrets
  • Weasels
  • Possums
  • Rats

Despite mounting evidence of how great a threat feral cats are to New Zealand's biodiversity, they are not included on the list.

Only last year DNA testing by a team of Department of Conservation (DOC) scientists showed cats were killing native pekapeka (bats) in Hamilton.

A dead feral cat caught with dozens of native species – mostly native bats – in its stomach.

Those results support earlier DNA-based research by DOC which conclusively proved feral cats had killed 50% of the kea in a study in Arthur's Pass — stoats killed the other half.

Kea birds are considered threatened–nationally endangered, lesser short-tailed bat are endangered, and their long-tailed relatives are nationally critical.

Kea in Arthur’s Pass

Tamsin Orr-Walker of Kea Conservation Trust is a staunch advocate for the world's only alpine parrot.

"We've got this great effort at the moment, Predator Free 2050, which is targeting stoats, and possums, and rats to protect our endangered wildlife. And yet cats are not on that list. Feral cats should be on that list and I think that that needs to be the first step forward."

Feral cats can roam for many kilometres and have been trapped both down at sea level and high up in the Southern Alps.

Motion activated wildlife camera snaps image of feral cat in the Southern Alps.

DOC master trapper Dean Nelson captures around 150 to 200 feral cats every year. He says he's been catching those numbers consistently for 18 years in a highly protected area around the only population of kakī (black stilts) in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Nelson said feral cats don't feature on the Predator Free 2050 list because they are just so difficult to control. "Politically, the idea of trying to get rid of cats is not particularly appealing to a range of people.

"There's quite a bit of opposition to the idea of controlling cats."

Captured feral cat.

Around 40% of Kiwi households have a cat and Nelson believes "People don't have pet rats generally, or pet stoats, but, you know the whole thing around domestic cats and companion cats makes it a really hard question to answer."

Orr-Walker of Kea Conservation Trust also thinks our relationship with moggies makes the idea of heavily targeting feral cats unappealing to many people in the general public.

"It's a very controversial subject that's probably been put into the 'too hard' basket. I think we just need to bite the bullet and recognise that it's a discussion that has to be had."

She says we need to separate our emotion from our family feline from the fact our unique species are defenceless against cats, and increasingly, in danger.

Jessi Morgan is the chief executive of the Predator Free New Zealand Trust — an independent charitable trust with the aim of inspiring New Zealanders to protect our unique species.

Tasman river looking towards Aoraki Mt Cook.

She said we simply don't have the legislative environment to undertake cat management in most parts of the country, but some are pushing for it.

"There is a unanimous call from welfare and conservation groups to introduce a National Cat Management Act. The complexity is mainly around identifying owned cats."

Cats fall between the legislative cracks but some regional councils have already taken action.

"There are about eight councils out of 13 that have feral cats as pests and there are about 20 bylaws around the country which require desexing."

She acknowledges cats as pests is highly political and emotive.

"Cat management is really challenging because cats are highly destructive pests as well as really important pets. As cat owners we have a long history of letting our cats roam."

Morgan supports the SPCA's position that New Zealanders microchip, desex and keep their cats on their home property.

Keeping cats contained at home would require a fundamental shift in attitude but one Morgan believes Kiwis are increasingly onboard with.

She points to evidence from Lincoln University's 2019 Environmental Perceptions Survey which found 75% of those surveyed agreed unowned cats are a significant threat to native species, and 50% of people agreed that domestic cats are a significant threat.

While last year the Predator Free New Zealand Trust commissioned research that found:

  • 66% of people supported microchipping cats
  • 75% supported desexing
  • 43% agreed cats should be restricted to their owners' property

"I think in time feral cats will be added to the Predator Free 2050 goal as there's no point leaving feral cats out there to undermine the work we've done to remove rats, stoats, ferrets, weasels and possums," Morgan said.


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