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Campbell Live

Killer cats: Does the science back up the claims?

Wednesday 23 Jan 2013 3:40 p.m.

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Last night Campbell Live spoke to Gareth Morgan about his campaign to phase out cat ownership in New Zealand.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say his suggestion caused pandemonium.

Many people refused to believe their cat kills at all.

Others say cats are the bane of New Zealand wildlife.

But what does the science say? How much killing does the average cat do? And just how damaging is it to our native birdlife?

One study, published in 2010, looked at just that, and the results may surprise you.

If you need evidence the average household moggy is a killer, you don’t need to go far.

In fact, yesterday viewers emailed Campbell Live hundreds of photos – many showing the results of a successful hunt.

A 17-year study itemising every piece of prey is something else entirely. It’s a mammoth piece of work, but that’s exactly what Zoologist John Flux did.

He lives on a suburban property in Lower Hutt and for almost two decades has recorded every animal caught by the family cat, Peng You.

Little Peng racked up quite the tally of kills:

  • Of the 558 items caught over Pen You’s lifetime, 221 were mice.
  • Then there were 63 rats, 35 rabbits, four hares and two weasels.
  • Over 17 years, 223 birds were caught, but just 54 of them were natives. Of those natives, 43 were silvereyes, which are of little conservation concern.

Importantly the 63 rats caught by Peng You on the property outnumber all the native birds she caught, and each rat would have been capable of killing many more birds – meaning Peng You probably helped the local native bird population.

So, the science tells us domestic cats do catch rodents and birds and lizards – but do they catch them in quantities that harm native populations?

Gareth Morgan and his researchers say they do.

“Research shows cats catch an average of 15-20 prey items a year,” Mr Morgan says.

But Mr Flux says the amount of wildlife on his property showed no apparent change over Pen You’s 17 years, compared with the previous 15 years – when no cat was present.

Peng You, a well-fed, neutered female – died in 2005 and has since been replaced by another cat. Interestingly, although this cat isn’t as good a hunter as Peng You, Mr Flux says their habits are similar.

Despite the presence of cats, Mr Flux says there is no shortage of wildlife on his property.

So what do you think? Is the family cat a sadistic and merciless serial killer? Or an unlikely protector of native wildlife?

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