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Cats and the countryside

cats and the countrysideNew Zealand "moggies" are due for a lifestyle change, and the outrage will come from their owners and not the cats, as felines are a very adaptable species.  The message is that cats should be confined at night.

New Zealanders accept that dogs must be under control at all times, but cannot accept that the same rule should apply to cats.  Nobody in their right mind would now put their dog out at night to wander at will, and welcome it back in the morning to be fed and sleep all day. And yet this is standard cat management.

Cat owners argue that cats are night creatures, which they are due to incredible night vision.  They are more 'independent' than dogs, and have a right to wander at will.  It's their natural behaviour.

But cats are like humans; they are a species that hunt to eat but also hunt for entertainment, and it's the latter where the problems start.  Cat owners also ague that the massive 'companionship' they provide humans, far outweighs any environmental damage they do by killing native fauna.

Mr Bob Kerridge of Auckland SPCA suggests we recognise three groups of cats in New Zealand.

First there are 'domestic cats' that live entirely with humans as companions.  They are completely dependent on humans for food, water and shelter, as well as their social structure and mortality through disease control and reproduction by desexing.

Then there are 'stray/unowned cats' that have many of their needs indirectly supplied by human activities (such as shelter in residential, industrial and agricultural sites), acquiring much of their food from scraps or from carers who feed these colonies.  These strays usually live in and around human habitation and interbreed with the domestic cat population.

Finally there are 'feral cats' that need no human support and don't live around human habitation.  Their population fluctuates independently of humans, and don't need input from the domestic cat population to maintain themselves.

There are an estimated 1.1 million cats in New Zealand, and 50% of households have a cat whereas only 25% have a dog (650,000).  The feral cat population is unknown, as is the proportion of rural cats compared to urban ones.  Each group should be viewed differently in the light of the increased concern over our clean, green - and humane image.

An average New Zealand cat kills well over 20 birds in a year, and cats on farms or lifestyle blocks have a greater chance to kill a wider range of birds, lizards and insects. But cats also kill vermin like rats, mice and rabbits, and it was for these vermin-killing skills that early humans domesticated the cat some 3,500 years ago.

If we think rules to restrict cats won't work, then look no further than across the Tasman where to protect native Australian fauna, many cats in some special areas are restricted to outdoor runs and are certainly never allowed out at nights.  Cats are very social animals and can live in close contact is small spaces, as long as they have elevated space that they can claim in a colony.

Responsible rural cat owners need to act.  Get the cat a collar with a bell on, but don't expect much success from this as some cats are far too fast - or their prey too slow.  Even fitting two bells may not work with some professional killers.  But what does work is to confine the cat to some safe area at night where you know that it's safe and it will stop them killing nocturnal fauna.   Fauna active during the day will still be killed, even when cats are fed ad lib.

Anyone who has found their cat squashed on the road or found dead in a trap, or euthanased by someone trapping 'vermin' in native bush - will see the sense in this.  Under the law, owners are responsible for the safety and welfare of their animals, and letting cats out a night these days is not being responsible.  Cats don't differ from dogs under the law.

All cats not required for breeding purposes should be desexed, and all feral cats on your property should be trapped and humanely euthanased, or failing this, they should be shot.  Warn your neighbours before you institute this policy.

If you have a vermin problem on the farm, then solve it by using a more positive method than relying on a cat.

Don't give kittens as Christmas presents, and don't buy cats or kittens from pet shops or organisations which don't desex them before purchase.

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