18 Apr 2023

North Canterbury hunting competition encouraged children to shoot feral cats

7:30 pm on 18 April 2023
feral cat

It is estimated there are 1.2 million domestic cats in New Zealand, and more than double the number of feral cats. (file image) Photo: 123RF

A North Canterbury hunting competition that encouraged kids to shoot feral cats has removed the category from the event after "vile and inappropriate emails and messages".

Since the competition began, SPCA started investigating the death of a cat in North Canterbury, which died yesterday after being shot with an air rifle. It was thought to be someone's pet but it was not certain if the cat's death was linked to the competition.

Cats are one of New Zealanders' favourite pets - it is estimated there are 1.2 million domestic cats in Aotearoa, and more than double the number of feral cats.

Boffa Miskell biosecurity consultant Dr Helen Blackie, who studied feral cats for two decades, said they were responsible for killing up to 100 million birds in Aotearoa each year.

"Historically, we know that feral cats were responsible for the extinction of six bird species and are leading agents of decline in populations of birds, bats, frogs and lizards."

Feral cat numbers had exploded in the last decade, Blackie said. In some areas, where pests were tracked by camera, more feral cats were detected than possums.

But wild felines are not monitored, controlled or culled in Canterbury because they are not classified as pests under its regional pest management plan.

"We don't have the same toolbox for controlling cats as we do for other species such as rats, possums and mustelids and there isn't such widespread accepted control strategies, which is something that we need to work on particularly across our conservation estate," Blackie said.

Feral cats also carry toxoplasmosis, which is a significant cause of abortion in sheep.

Blackie said a study of the impact of the parasitic infection on the sheep industry in Hawke's Bay was estimated at $18 million in 2014.

"It's a very emotive issue, and it is an area where we are probably lagging behind the rest of the world now in terms of acknowledging the damage that's being done by feral cats and the methods we need to use to control them."

Humanely shooting feral cats requires 'a lot of experience'

The North Canterbury Hunting Competition, run by volunteers from the community, is a fundraiser for the Rotherham School and pool.

For the first time this year, organisers included the feral cat category, with whoever bagged the most between now and the end of June winning a $250 prize.

The event began on Saturday, but after it was reported, on Tuesday the competition organisers withdrew the category.

In a statement, organisers said: "Unfortunately, there have been some vile and inappropriate emails and messages sent to the school and others involved - we are incredibly disappointed in this reaction... the decision has been made to withdraw this category for this year to avoid further backlash at this time. We are disappointed and apologise to those who were excited to be involved."

SPCA science officer Christine Sumner said shooting feral cats as part of a competition could lead to a rise in the animals receiving non-fatal bullet wounds and suffering from slow deaths.

"We recognise the impacts that all cats, including feral cats, can have on native wildlife and that at times, lethally controlling cats is the approach to protecting biodiversity."

But humanely shooting cats to kill them required experience and confidence, which young people might not have, Sumner said.

"This can take a lot of experience in someone being competent to humanely shoot animals and therefore that they place a shot that leads to the quickest death, and that is one of the concerns we have with a competition that encourages younger people to shoot animals and kill them and receive a reward for doing so."

Feral cats were considered to be wild animals, with self-sustaining populations, which did not rely on humans to survive, she said. Quite different from stray cats living in urban areas or domestic, companion cats.

"It's really important that we do a lot of de-sexing of our companion cats, we think about humane strategies for our stray cats and then when it comes down to feral cats, we recognise that lethal management may be the best option but it needs to be humane."

'A risk that someone's pet will be killed'

SAFE spokesperson Will Appelbe said the animal welfare organisation was calling on the organisers to remove the feral cat category from its competition.

In a now-deleted Facebook post, participants were told they would be disqualified for including any microchipped catch, which Appelbe said was "frankly ludicrous".

"The problem is there is little to no physical difference in appearance of feral cats, stray cats or pet cats, they are the same animal. So there is a risk that someone's pet will be killed and that risk is incredibly high."

While some animals were considered pests and others were not, all animals had the ability to suffer pain and distress, Appelbe said.

"This is not the way to manage our cat population, countless cats are abandoned and neglected every year ... cat charities around the country are working tirelessly to reduce the number of stray cats in our community and there are proven strategies that meet the welfare needs of these animals."

Any event that involved a race to kill as many animals as possible, increased the likelihood of animals suffering, he said.

"We should be teaching children empathy towards animals, not handing them tools to kill them ... I understand this event is a fundraiser for Rotherham School and they can't sit on the sidelines, they need to ensure this event isn't targeting cats, because sending children off to kill cats shouldn't be one of the ways to raise money."

Department of Conservation principal science adviser Craig Gillies said while it supported members of the public taking part in feral cat control, it needed to be undertaken by experienced people using approved humane methods.

The use of firearms was an accepted method of controlling feral cats, provided the equipment was of the correct calibre and used by trained professionals and there were guidelines in place for this.

Competition organisers said in a statement on Tuesday night "with all hunting and in all of our categories, our hunters are required to abide by firearms act 1983 and future amendments as well as the Animal Welfare Act 1999".

"Please remember we are a group of volunteers who are trying to raise money for our local school and pool. This fundraising effort aids the local school in employing a Board-funded third teacher and gives our local community and kids greater opportunities."

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