Exclusive: Kiwis will decide whether feral cats should be added to kill list

Warning this story contains images some might find distressing. 

Feral cats could soon be on the country’s official predator hit-list.

Newshub can reveal the Government is completely reviewing its Predator Free 2050 strategy - and opening public consultation on whether feral cats should be added.

And there’s support from an unlikely source - the SPCA.

It’s a move that conservationists and scientists say is urgently needed to halt the destruction of native birds, bats and lizards.

Predator Free 2050 gives us strategies, targets and funding to get rid of our most deadly pests - which currently only includes possums, stoats, rats and weasels.

In the past five years, the feral cat population has outnumbered possums, and it’s estimated feral cats are killing 100 million native species every year.

That’s just an estimate because little research has been done to ascertain the extent of cats’ damage to biodiversity.

What we do know is that cats can kill between 10 and 20 prey items a day, and breed six times faster than possums.

They have two litters a year from the age of four months, and three to six kittens per litter.

Lack of funding, lack of public support

The Department of Conservation has a mandate to control feral cats on conservation land, but it doesn’t have dedicated funding for this purpose - it has to dip into the pot for general operational biodiversity funding, and that has countless competing priorities - like protecting 4000 threatened species, and controlling weeds and other pests.

For example, Budget 2022 allocated $30 million to ramping up deer and goat control. 

There was no similar allocation for feral cat control.

Experts like predator ecologist Helen Blackie say that makes no sense.

“I think the thing that's most frustrating is a lot of people not realising and understanding the damage that feral cats are doing,’ she says.

She says there is a “black hole” in our understanding of the damage cats are doing to our biodiversity partly because of public backlash to killing cats, and partly due to a lack of funding.

“As soon as [community groups] start talking about trying to address feral cats, that's when they start getting community backlash.

“So a lot of people doing pest control work are too scared to broach the subject of doing feral cat control in case they lose what they call the license to operate.”

And it’s tough to get the public on board when we lack the data to back up the argument that feral cats need to be eradicated, she says.

“We have not provided enough research funding to actually look into the damage that cats are doing to our natural environment,” Blackie says.

The lack of a national strategy to deal with feral cats means the lion's share of the work to control them is done by volunteers and community groups, many of whom are funded by Jobs For Nature - a $1.19 billion fund intended to benefit the environment.

This fund got no boost in this year’s Budget, and there’s no guarantee it’ll continue beyond June next year, which makes groups like the Southern Lakes Sanctuary very nervous.

Trapper Chrissy Becker-Fifield works for Southern Lakes Sanctuary and her job is funded by Jobs for Nature.

She spends her days setting and checking traps in the Rees, Dart and Greenstone Valleys near Glenorchy, as well as the unpleasant but necessary job of dispatching trapped feral cats with a .22.

It’s a part of the country I am well familiar with - spending much of my life tramping and skiing in the surrounding mountains.

It’s shocking to learn Chrissy and her colleagues have trapped around 40 cats in this remote and pristine area in the last few months.

Chrissy is a passionate conservationist and a cat lover. She checks the traps daily to minimise stress on trapped cats, and takes immense care in the dispatching, which she does with masterful precision.

“No conservationist goes into this kind of work because we love killing things. We'd love it if we didn't have to,” Becker-Fifield says.

“But we've brought these mammals in and we need to do something because we don't have time, we're losing species… very quickly.”

As I watch Chrissy shoot a cat we’ve found in a trap, it’s clear this humane end is the best option for these wild predators.

The life of a feral or stray cat is unpleasant - they are not vaccinated against disease and don’t receive vet care when injured.

The number of feral cats getting caught is getting out of hand.
The number of feral cats getting caught is getting out of hand. Photo credit: Newshub

Former DOC boss admits not getting cats in Predator Free 2050 his "biggest frustration"

I went to Wanaka to meet former DOC boss Lou Sanson, and ask him why cats didn’t make it into Predator Free 2050.

We walked through a stand of 15-year-old forest, planted by a private landowner intent on returning the land to some semblance of pest-free wilderness.

Several cats are trapped here each week by a trapper employed by the landowner, and as if to prove a point that trappers are barely holding the line against feral cats, one is caught during the couple of hours we spend there filming.

Sanson was in charge of DOC when the decision was made on what pests to include in the 2050 goal, and said he had some frustrating conversations with the then SPCA bosses who were resistant to including cats.

“One of my frustrations was the inability to include cats in the Predator Free movement.”

He said DOC also didn’t accept that cats were such a huge problem.

“As director general for DOC, I hold some responsibility as we were doing so much research on stoats, on rats and possums, but we're missing cats. 

“We need to know the best baits, the best lures, the best type of traps, the best camera system - we need to know the most effective and efficient way of killing feral cats.”

SPCA admits emotion clouded its decision-making, says it now supports the humane killing of feral cats

Anja Dale is the SPCA’s chief scientific officer - the first to hold the role at the organisation, which shows the progress it has made to ensure its decisions are underpinned by evidence.

So, did the SPCA allow emotion to get in the way of making a decision when it opposed the inclusion of cats in Predator Free 2050?

“I've been in my role as a chief scientific officer for seven and a half years now, and I can categorically say since that time everything has been evidence based, everything has supporting research behind it,” Dale replies.

“It is possible historically, yes, but certainly not in the current framework.”

Dale explains that people take a polarised view around the management of feral and stray cats, so the SPCA has to be careful of the wording it uses.

Ultimately, the SPCA supports the humane killing of feral cats, she says.

“That's the right outcome for preserving our native species that are equally as important as humane management of all species.”

Feral cats can kill between 10 and 20 prey items a day.
Feral cats can kill between 10 and 20 prey items a day. Photo credit: Newshub

DOC reveals it will open consultation on including feral cats in Predator Free 2050 goal

Conservation Minister Willow Jean Prime revealed to Paddy Gower Has Issues that DOC is conducting its first review of the Predator Free 2050 strategy next year.

The review will include the target predators for Predator Free 2050 and will address the question of whether feral cats or other introduced predators should be included.

The public will be consulted on any changes to the strategy, meaning it’s up to Kiwis whether feral cats are added.

It’s excellent news for trappers working hard across the country to just hold the line against feral cats.

Additionally, a report based on submissions calling for a cat management act is due to be considered by Parliament in the coming weeks.

Environmentalists hope legislation can be enacted to require the mandatory desexing and microchipping of pet cats, which will help slow the boom of the feral population.