Trap–Neuter–Return: Undermining New Zealand Conservation.Posted: May 1, 2017
Author: Olivia Carson
In New Zealand, conservation is a crucial tool used to maintain our unique ecosystem. But are our beloved feline friends undoing conservation’s hard work? Cats enjoy preying on some of New Zealand’s endemic species, such as birds like the kiwi, kererū and tui, reptiles like skinks, geckos and tuatara or invertebrates like weta. Statistics show that cats are having an impact on our native fauna, so is it time to revise programs which enable this behaviour to continue?
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a management technique used in New Zealand (NZ) by participating SPCA clinics whereby wild free-roaming cats, of all ages, are being humanely captured, spayed, and health checked. Upon completion, they are returned to their original habitat where their presence is approved, or they are put up for adoption if they are seen fit for domestication (Levy, et al., 2013). Former SPCA National President, Bob Kerridge, and the majority of NZ’s SPCAs support TNR as it aids in the welfare of, “sick, injured, lost, abused or simply abandoned cats” and it leads to an eventual decrease in the wild cat population (Auckland SPCA, 2016). However, this support is rivalled with opposition from The Department of Conservation (DOC) and conservation minister, Maggie Barry, who in 2015 called for the SPCA to stop the programme altogether, claiming it was destructive to native birds (Smith, 2015). Throughout this article the positive and negative implications of TNR will be explored, arguing that from a conservationist’s perspective, this program, along with feral and stray cats need to go.
Cats are categorised by their behavioural differences, whether they are domestic, stray or feral. Domestic cats are those who live with an owner and depend on humans for their care and welfare. A stray cat is one who was once a domesticated animal but has become lost or abandoned and has their needs indirectly supplied to them by humans or their environment. Feral cats are born and raised in the wild and have few of their needs provided by people and tend to live away from centres of human habitation (Farnworth, et al., 2010). One behaviour which these cats share is their instinct to kill, with studies nationwide showing that many of NZ’s endangered species have targets on their backs.
The debate on whether cats should be classified as pests is strongly controversial. 48% of households in NZ accommodate at least one cat, showing that us Kiwis have a real love for these furry creatures (Mckay, et al., 2009). DOC, on the other hand, consider cats as pests, due to their negative impacts on our native species (Abbott, 2008). This begs the question, why are programmes such as TNR supporting the release of these homeless and undomesticated cats back into the wild?
There are many reasons to support the use of TNR. In Rome, Italy, a study on a long-term TNR programme showed that cat colonies decreased by up to 24% over a 6-year period, demonstrating that loss of reproductive ability has a marked effect on the reduction of the number of unwanted kittens (Natoli, et al., 2006). Furthermore, by returning the cat to the environment after veterinary attention, it allowed them to continue using their hunting instincts towards decreasing mammalian pest populations. The same methodology can be applied to NZ as mammalian pests, such as mice and rats are also known to feast on New Zealand’s native species (Towns & Broome, 2003). Therefore, it could be reasoned that if cats were removed altogether from the ecosystem, it might experience a decline in native wildlife due to a rise in the rodent population.
The introduction of cats to NZ has seen some unfortunate outcomes for native species, which underwent evolution during a period where mammalian predators were non-existent (Norbury, et al., 2014). Domestic, stray and feral cats have all contributed to the extinction of 40% of NZ endemic birds (Sijbranda, et al., 2016). In 1894, a single cat was able to completely wipe out an entire species of Stephen’s Island Wren, who were thought to be taking refuge from mammalian pests on Stephen’s Island (Galbreath & Brown, 2004). This reinforces how destructive one cat, who may be from a TNR programme can be.
The average cat kills approximately 65 creatures a year (van Heezik, et al., 2010). Rats, one of NZ’s most devastating pests, arguably contribute just as much damage, along with ferrets, stoats, weasels and possums. Both government and territorial authorities use alternatives to TNR to control these predators which meet humane standards for example poison and traps. It could be debated that although a less favourable outcome for cats, instead of the SPCA spending money on neutering and providing medical attention, it could be considered more humane to euthanise. Recognising this will stop cats from having an unloved life on the street and ensures that no native animals will come to their demise in the future.
If TNR was terminated, then continued pest management would be essential. Instead of neutering and releasing trapped stray and feral cats, they would need to be humanely euthanised. Continued management would also benefit the eradication of the other pests which cats may prey on. New Zealand aims to have a pest-free ecosystem by 2050 and the Government, iwis, and regional councils are showing their support to this cause by providing approximately $70 million annually towards predator control (The Department of Conservation, 2014). This sum would continue to benefit pest management if TNR was stopped. There are humane pest control options which could be better advertised to the public (Goodnature and Victor professional traps), which may increase support, reinforcing that we don’t need cat input to sort our pest problem, just people’s support.
The negative consequences of having stray and feral cats in our environment far outweigh the positives. Most cat owners are reasonable people, agreeing that measures such as mandatory microchipping, registration and compulsory neutering, would allow for better care of future stray cats. If people complied with these rules, then stray cats could be returned to their owners. We don’t need to remove our much-loved pets altogether, but our native fauna needs protection too, the ones that define us as a nation, and for this to be achievable, TNR must go. TNR currently undermines conservation practices by allowing destructive animals to continue to roam freely. If it weren’t for cats “most-loved” status, it wouldn’t be an issue, as we don’t see rats being neutered and returned to the wild, do we?
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