Cat lovers get concessions on pest control

Q: When is a pest cat not a pest cat?

A: When it’s being targeted by Auckland Council in its new pest management plan, and cat lovers all over the city object. Now it will be called an “unowned cat”.

Council staff have made a number of other changes to the draft Regional Pest Management Plan after howling from the cat community over its plans to euthanise strays – defined as un-microchipped or without a collar with a name and address on it – in areas of ecological significance.

The concern over a possible cat armageddon was so extreme that staff received death threats.

But the council is clear that predation by cats is among the key risks to the survival of numerous threatened species including black petrel, Cook’s petrel, New Zealand dotterels and juvenile kiwi. Phil Brown, the council’s Biosecurity Manager, has previously said cats are known to have already contributed to the local or complete extinction of at least nine native New Zealand birds.

“Auckland Council recognises the need to balance wildlife protection with the value cats hold as New Zealand’s most common companion animal. We know there is a lot of public support for the enhanced management of cats to help protect Auckland’s native biodiversity,” he said.

However it is clear from the response to the plan that there are just as many cat lovers out there appalled by the very thought of such “enhanced management” – including describing them as “pests”.

Staff looked at other names for nuisance cats and dismissed ‘uncared for cat’, ‘wild cat’, ‘target cat’ and the old term of ‘feral cat’ – the later because it can be hard to tell the difference between a feral and a stray cat caught in a trap, but both are a danger to native species.

The council’s Environment and Community Committee is to vote on the final form of the wide-ranging plan today. A report to the committee reveals half of all submitters – around 600 people – mentioned cats. Three quarters of those objected to the council’s plans – including the way cats were described.

The report says submitters “expressed concern that the term ‘pest cat’ is offensive, inappropriate and may enable animal welfare abuse”. The revised term “is said to provide the most clarity in terms of the person responsible for the cat”.

When the plan was sent out for public consultation in November 2017 it sparked alarm amongst feline devotees that some kind of Gareth Morgan-level plan was around the corner, pushed by fanatical conservationists who would seize on lost moggies.  

“Submitters were concerned that the proposal provided powers which would enable much more cat control than the stated approach of a small number of sites targeted to high biodiversity value. Submitters felt that new sites might be created at any time and they sought assurance that control sites would not be created unannounced near communities with pet cats,” the report says. Staff have amended the plan to provide more certainty on where cat management might take place. Areas for live-capture unowned cat trapping would be linked to the presence of threatened native animals -birds, reptiles or amphibians. Cat communities will also be told when cat control is being carried out so they have the chance to microchip their pets."

The reaction sparked official assurances that this was not about rounding up cats in urban areas, but protecting high value ecological areas containing threatened native species.

Some areas will still have zero-tolerance for cats, including pest-free off-shore islands and fenced sanctuaries such as Tawharanui.

The council report on feedback on the management plan says overall the 1324 submissions were in support of the changes, except when it came to cat management, where about 75 percent of submitters were opposed.

(The review is needed because the old plan, which was drawn up by the former Auckland Regional Council, hasn’t taken into account the requirements of the Biosecurity Act.)

Cat complaints covered three main areas – the definition of a pest cat; the areas to be covered by proposed cat management; and a planned ban on feeding cats on council parkland.

Other recommended changes to the plan that went out for public debate are to provide more certainty on cat control areas by clarifying that unowned cat control will only be carried out in rural areas with threatened species present; and to amend the ban of feeding unowned cats on parks to apply only to parks with threatened species present.

In answer to concerns that cat microchips could fail, officers suggesting advising cat owners to consult vets regarding reliable brands. They could also keep their pet indoors during culling periods.

The report acknowledges that pest management often involves conflicting value positions.

“Many pests, regardless of the magnitude of their ecological or economic impacts, may be prized by sections of society (e.g. as a garden plant, pet, recreational hunting or fishing resource, or for commercial gain). Public views may be polarised in relation to the acceptability of control methods, such as toxins or lethal control of animals.

"In particular, the management of cats has drawn a range of strong responses both in support of and opposition to the proposals. A proactive communications and engagement plan aimed at locally affected communities will mitigate this risk. The amendments described in this report may also go some way to mitigating concerns.

“Regardless, a solution that is acceptable to all submitters is not possible to achieve. Staff consider that the recommended amendments to cat management in the final plan will provide a reasonable balance between ecological protection and animal welfare concerns.”

The council has made other changes, notably a scaling back of the inclusion of new pest species in the plan due to the potential risk of a legal challenge from the nursery industry.

Officers also recommend a scaling back of the plan, originally costed at $307.15 million over 10 years, to fit budgets. The plan will be largely funded by the natural environment targeted rate approved last year, but that would only be enough to cover 80 percent of what was initially imagined. It has been scaled back by reducing the area of parkland included in areas defined as significant ecological areas, reducing the original extend of rural possum control by half (from all rural land, to half of it), and cutting back on pest plant management on Hauraki Gulf islands.

“Despite the above amendments, the final plan will still be a substantial increase on what was being delivered under the legacy Regional Pest Management Strategy,” the report says. 

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