Contest for Children to Hunt Feral Cats is Scrapped in New Zealand

The country aggressively tries to control invasive species, but the culling event, which was to be part of a bigger hunting competition, generated a backlash.

A tabby cat in long grass.
While New Zealanders are broadly in agreement that feral cats needed to be controlled, culling them has remained divisive in the country.

By Yan Zhuang

April 19, 2023

A hunting contest in rural New Zealand where children were to compete to kill the greatest number of feral cats for a cash prize has been canceled after a backlash from animal rights organizations.

New Zealand, an island nation, has aggressively tried to control invasive species from overwhelming its native wildlife. But culling feral cats remains divisive, and the planned hunt inflamed debate about the morality of the practice and how children should be taught about invasive species management.

“There is no right or wrong here,” said James Russell, a conservation biologist at the University of Auckland. While New Zealanders broadly agree that feral cats need to be controlled, he said, “the issue is that it kind of touches on all these broader ethical issues: Should kids be the one killing cats? Should it be done as a charity competition event?”

The event was to be part of a fund-raising competition in June to hunt feral animals in North Canterbury, a region on the country’s South Island. The cat-culling event was new this year, and it was open to children under the age of 14, with the winner receiving 250 New Zealand dollars, or about $155, according to Facebook posts by the North Canterbury Hunting Competition.

The feral cat event was announced on Saturday, but it included few details about how it would be regulated, except that participants would be disqualified if a killed cat was found to be microchipped. The announcement prompted outrage from animal rights advocates, and organizers canceled the cat culling on Tuesday because of the backlash.

SAFE, a New Zealand animal rights organization, was one of the groups that called for the cat hunt to be scrapped, citing concerns that the event would glorify hunting animals among children and that domestic cats could be caught in the crossfire.

“It’s bad enough that young people are being taught and encouraged to kill small animals,” said Will Appelbe, a spokesman for SAFE. “There is little to no difference in the physical appearance of feral, stray and pet cats. Disqualifying dead cats with microchips is too little, too late.”

But proponents, including the event’s organizers, have argued that feral cats are a predator species that needed to be culled and that the event would have taught children how to responsibly manage invasive species. They called for the cat hunt to be reinstated.

Mat Bailey, one of the organizers, said that the event was not about deliberately encouraging children to kill cats, but instead about teaching them about the broader issue of invasive species.

Children would already be hunting rabbits, possums, rats and other invasive species with rifles as part of the competition, which would run over a weekend, he said, “so they’re going to be out here anyway, and we might as well include the cat because it’s the worst of the lot.”

“It’s not that we just want kids to kill cats, it’s the whole problem of the whole lot” of invasive species, he said. The event was about “teaching kids firearms safety; it’s just in general a fun activity for them — getting them out in the fresh air, and it’s making them realize these animals are destroying native species.”

The competition still plans to hunt animals other than cats, he said.

Mr. Bailey said the issue had been “blown out of proportion” but acknowledged that organizers had not finalized clear guidelines for “safe hunting practices” when the cat-culling event was posted last weekend. He said that the committee had envisioned that children would be accompanied by adults with firearms licenses and training and that hunters were to work with local landowners to avoid areas where domestic cats might frequent.

The organizers canceled the cat culling after the backlash grew and some sponsors contacted them with concerns. The school that was to receive funds from the event started to receive threats, Mr. Bailey added.

New Zealand takes a harsh approach to eradicating invasive species that is broadly supported by the public, and events to hunt feral animals are not uncommon. Every year, the town of Alexandra, on South Island, conducts an annual “Great Easter Bunny Hunt” where children and adults cull feral rabbits.

The country has a plan to eliminate its three most pervasive invasive predator species — opossums, rats and weasels — by 2050 to protect native wildlife.

Feral felines are not included in official eradication plans because “it’s too politically difficult” considering the attachment that residents feel toward pet cats, said Grant Norbury, a wildlife ecologist with Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research, an environment and biodiversity institute in New Zealand.

While hunting feral cats itself is an accepted method of controlling the species, “it’s when you talk about children in particular and doing it as a competition, I think, that it’s politically unwise,” he said.

The issue raised the question of how children should be taught about eradicating invasive species, said Professor Russell, the University of Auckland biologist.

“On one hand, there’s this argument we shouldn’t be teaching kids to kill animals — which is true — but if we don’t teach them about the impacts of feral cats and possums, we’re essentially turning a blind eye to their impact,” he said.

This is not the first time the country has debated such issues, he said, citing a 2012 incident when a school faced backlash for holding a competition over which child could best dress up a dead possum.

Mr. Bailey said that children, including his three daughters, loved the hunting competition, which was first held last year. Removing the feral cat event would not dissuade children from taking part in the rest of the competition, he said.

“Come that weekend in June, there won’t be a kid sitting at home, they’ll be out there chasing everything everywhere,” he said. “It’s the thrill of the chase. It’s like fishing.”

While the feral cat event would not go ahead this year, Mr. Bailey would like to find a less contentious way to incorporate feral cats and children into the hunting competition next year, possibly by creating an event for children to trap them humanely.

“It needs to be done,” he said.

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