Organizers of a New Zealand hunting contest are pawing their way out of controversy after canceling an event that would have seen children 14 and under compete to kill the most feral cats.
The North Canterbury Hunting Competition is open to both kids and adults, and aims to manage invasive species and raise money for local causes — specifically, a school and pool in the rural village of Rotherham.
Last year, more than 250 children killed 427 animals, mostly possums, hares and rabbits, according to The Guardian.
Organizers added a new category this year, announcing in a since-deleted Friday Facebook post that whoever could kill the most feral cats between mid-April and late June would win the equivalent of $155. And they warned that anyone who produced a microchipped cat — meaning one that belonged to someone — would have their entire entry disqualified.
That prompted an immediate outcry from animal rights groups like SAFE, who pointed out that feral cats don't necessarily look different from strays and pets. Worried that house cats would suffer, they called on organizers to cancel the category.
"Disqualifying dead cats with microchips is too little too late," said SAFE spokesperson Will Appelbe. "It's not even an ambulance, but a grave at the bottom of the cliff."
The competition changed course on Tuesday.
"Our sponsors and school safety are our main priority, so the decision has been made to withdraw this category for this year to avoid further backlash at this time," organizers wrote on Facebook. "We are disappointed and apologise for those who were excited to be involved in something that is about protecting [our] native birds, and other vulnerable species."
That post received a mix of supportive and disapproving reactions, with some reiterating the threat that feral cats pose and others arguing there are better ways to respond to it.
The contest didn't actually break any laws, as the Canterbury chapter of the New Zealand SPCA noted on Facebook, adding that it was still "extremely concerned." Event organizers stressed that all hunters are required to abide by the country's firearm and animal welfare acts.
They added that the school and others involved had gotten "vile & inappropriate emails and messages," and stressed that the hunting competition is run independently by volunteers and for an important cause.
"This fundraising effort is critical in aiding the local school to employ a board funded third teacher and gives our local community and kids greater opportunities," organizers wrote.
The rest of the categories will continue as planned the weekend of June 23.
Feral cats are wreaking havoc on wildlife
There's no question that feral cats are harmful to New Zealand's native species.
New Zealand's Department of Conservation says feral cats — defined as those that live in the wild and have none of their needs provided for by humans — are widespread throughout the country.
There could be as many as 2.5 million, which is about double the number of domestic cats in the country, according to conservation organization Forest & Bird. A pest controller told the news outlet Stuff last year that feral cats were at "plague" levels in Canterbury.
Feral cats can grow larger than house cats in the right conditions but don't tend to live as long. They're similar in appearance to typical tabby, tortoiseshell and black house cats, authorities add.
Their diet depends on their habitat, and they can live anywhere from coastal areas and sub-alpine environments to forests, farmland and islands. They feed on rabbits, birds and bird eggs, rats, hares, bats, lizards, mice and other insects, which officials say has a "major impact."
For instance, feral cats have reduced Grand and Otago skink populations to critically low levels in the Central Otago district and decimated populations of endangered kakī/black stilt, wrybill and black-fronted terns in the central South Island.
Helen Blackie, a biosecurity consultant who studied feral cats for two decades, told Radio New Zealand that they were responsible for killing up to 100 million birds across the country every year. Feral cats also carry toxoplasmosis, a common cause of contagious abortion in sheep.
"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," Blackie said.
The question is, what should be done about it?
Animal rights groups want to see them handled humanely
The hunting category controversy has highlighted the debate over how best to handle pest control in New Zealand.
The SPCA was one of the groups that opposed the event, saying there was a good chance someone's pet could be killed.
It noted that children often use air rifles in these events, which increases the likelihood of an animal's suffering and prolonged death.
"SPCA advocates that, instead of organised killing events, education around humane and compassionate practices can better prepare young people to appreciate and protect the biological heritage of New Zealand," the organization said.
Without a national effort to reduce the feral cat population, regional councils can only introduce piecemeal local measures and the Conservation Department can act only on public conservation land, according to charitable trust Predator Free New Zealand.
New Zealand does have "Predator Free 2050," a federal plan to eliminate its most pressing predators: rats, stoats and possums. There are calls for cats to be added to that plan, a politically contentious issue.
Some advocates, including Forest & Bird, are calling on the government to establish a national Cat Management Act for owners that would, among other things, make desexing and microchipping mandatory and institute a limit of three cats per household.
Appelbe, the SAFE spokesperson, tweeted that cat management strategies that "actually work" include "trap, neuter, release," "mandatory microchip, registering, desexing" and adopting instead of shopping for pets.
He added that there are other ways to raise money for the Rotherham school and pool, "and sending children off to kill cats shouldn't be one of them."