Halifax’s Hunter of the Year competition celebrates the role of cats as eco-warriors in the urban, urban-fringe and rural settings. Cats are largely beneficial to native birds in these ecosystems because they largely prey on rodents, the main threat to native birdlife,
This year’s winner of Halifax Hunter of the Year is Cathie Harrison’s Tiger. This is a remarkable story of a slowly developing relationship between a young feral cat and a sensitive human being. Cathie’s unedited story continues below:
I live on a wild country block. When I first saw a young feral cat in the long grass, watching me, I was very dismayed. There is native beech forest where I live, and many shrubs and flaxes, so there is an abundance of native bird life. The presence of a feral cat would pose a grave danger to these native birds. Or so I assumed.
I saw the young cat again a few days later on the edge of the forest. As humans are wont to do, I felt that I must “fix” this “problem.” So I rang the SPCA to see if they would take the cat if I was successful in trapping it. Well, yes… they would… but the cat would likely be put down since it was feral and therefore not suitable for adoption.
I didn’t want the cat here but I also didn’t want to be responsible for it losing its life. I pondered this conundrum for several days. Maybe I could tame it? Then it would become suitable for rehoming. Or so I thought.
Looking back, I’m amazed at my naivety and also my arrogant stupidity and lack of critical thought. Like most people I knew nothing of feral cats, only what I had read and heard about them. That they were bad for wildlife I was quite convinced. People have told me since that feral cats are untameable but I was unaware of this “fact” at the time.
I started on my project in the full flush of this ignorance. I had caught sight of the young cat at the edge of the forest, so i started leaving food there. I didn’t see the cat, but whenever I came back the food was gone. It was winter and the half-grown cat seemed glad of this food source. After a week or two I started to catch glimpses of it watching me from a safe distance, but it never let me approach.
However, since I had become a reliable source of food it started stalking me after a while. I realised with a degree of amusement that I had become its human prey. It was a hard winter, sometimes the snow was heavy. I had become essential to the young cat’s survival. It would lie in hiding, watching the back door intently. Whenever I came out the cat would stealthily follow me, darting from hiding place to hiding place. Wherever I went the cat followed. But still it wouldn’t let me approach.
However was I to tame this fierce shy creature? One day I tied a thick hank of black wool to the end of a long piece of string and then attached this to the end of a long light branch. In this way I was able to jerk the “prey” about in the long grass without coming too close to the cat. He was young. He just couldn’t resist this lure. He soon pounced on the wool and wrestled with it briefly. And somehow he must have known that he was interacting with me during this play.
A few days afterwards I was sitting on the ground, leaning against the pump house at the edge of the forest, enjoying the sun, when “Tiger,” as I had come to think of him, approached warily. I sat motionless, hardly breathing. He came closer still. Then after a long period of indecision he hurriedly brushed against my gumboot and promptly ran away. I didn’t move. He circled round cautiously and brushed against my gumboot again and I just kept completely still. When I got up he ran away into the forest, but our relationship had changed irrevocably.
I started making a habit of sitting at the edge of the forest. Tiger began to purr as he brushed against me and eventually I was able to trail my fingers feather-light along his back, which he found he liked. As long as I made no sudden moves he would stay near me and hIs confidence grew.
One day I lay on my back in the grass. The fact that I was now down at his own level emboldened Tiger hugely. For the first time he could really relate to me. He circled my body, purring like a chainsaw, repeatedly butting my body with his head. I tried to hold in my laughter in case it scared Tiger but I couldn’t. Somehow he knew it wasn’t threatening and he redoubled his affections.
Winter passed and Tiger grew to adult size. Worryingly, his interest in the food I brought had tailed off. I tried buying “gourmet” wet food, but no. He was clearly finding the “real” food he could catch for himself much more to his liking. He still stalked me though, following me wherever I went on my animal-feeding duties each day. I had become tribe as far as Tiger was concerned. He conversed with me throughout in little murmurs, punctuated by soft miaows. He proved a surprisingly talkative young fellow, full of comments, grumbles and queries. I’ve seen a mother cat murmur to her young, but it wasn’t something I’d noticed to any great extent in the other cats I have lived with. I started to murmur back and as I became more proficient in speaking Cat soon we were having long discussions as we walked along on subjects i couldn’t quite determine. People characterise cats as solitary, independent creatures, but Tiger clearly relished company. He’s still terrified of strangers though. In the early days he used to growl if he heard someone coming. He’s mellowed a bit over the years but he still runs away whenever visitors come.
One day early on I was inside the house when I caught sight of Tiger strolling across the paddock. I watched him through my binoculars. He looked so perfectly and fittingly at home in this environment. I realised forcefully in that moment that he belonged here, in this place, even more than I did! That I had no right to forcibly re-home him. It was my human arrogance that had made me think I did. The matter no longer seemed urgent anyway, since he didn’t seem to be having any impact on the native birdlife. Instead his passion was rabbits.
Later I would learn that several studies overseas have found that, like their much larger wild cousins, feral cats actually prefer mammalian prey. In Spain when rabbit numbers plummeted after the deliberate introduction of myxomatosis and other viral diseases as a control, the Iberian lynx nearly became extinct. It is almost entirely dependent on rabbits for food. To save the lynx some 50,000 rabbits have been introduced over the past five years in areas where the lynx still survives and lynx numbers have started to rise.
I speculate that cats may have evolved as mammalian predators, specifically of rodents and lagomorphs. Lagomorphs were prolific in the ancient world. While the ancient Egyptians revered cats, they also had a Hare goddess, and hares were endemic throughout much of Africa. If feral cats evolved to eat rabbits and hares it may explain their hatred of stoats – stoats are competitors for this vital food source, so feral cats hunt and kill them.
Here is Tiger intent on something (a mouse?) in the undergrowth:
Much of our thinking about feral cats seems to be drawn from what we know (or think we know) about domestic cats. But feral cats are very different from domestic cats in some ways I’ve come to suspect. For one thing they may tend to be more intelligent – they have to be to survive I think. Their natural instincts are also still intact and this seems to cause them to behave differently from domestic cats in some ways. They also seem to be capable of surprisingly complex reactions and behaviour.
As soon as Tiger was safe to pick up I had had him neutered at Halifax Vet Clinic. They handled him with great care and sensitivity. He had by this time contracted lung worm and would likely have died if the vets at Halifax hadn’t known the nature of the problem immediately. He had to be given Ivomec which was the only available treatment at that time. It made me realise that while feral cats may be prolific breeders their life span in the wild must generally be very brief. Given that rodents and mustelids are a greater threat to native wildlife than feral cats it may be unwise to mount projects to eradicate feral cats while rodents and mustelids remain in an area. The feral cat may be the only real control on these animals. Nature always has its reasons.
Since I had two elderly indoor cats I did not let Tiger in the house, although he was very curious about this “den” inside which I used to disappear. As our relationship matured I put some sacking on top of a feed bin in the carport and this became his special den where he often slept at night. After a while he started bringing his prey back to the carport to eat – something which caused considerable dissension between us. However it did give me a good insight into his diet. It was primarily rabbit, with the occasional bird, but these were almost invariably ground flocking birds like sparrows and finches. He may have caught a wax-eye once or twice but other than that I haven’t known him catch a native bird in the 9 or 10 years that he has been around, although they are here in their abundance – tuis, bellbirds, fantails, tomtits, bush robins and the occasional weka. Once there was a long-tailed cuckoo and sometimes native pigeons visit in the summer. There are even kaka, although these don’t come near the house.
Feral cats are opportunistic of course, but their primary prey, provided this food source is readily available, seems to be rodents and rabbits. They are also fairly easily deterred, unlike stoats who can be obsessive in the extreme once they have set their minds on a particular prey.
After the last of my elderly domestic cats died I allowed Tiger to come into the house. He was very nervous at first, coming in and then going straight out again, but eventually he was sleeping inside every night. This gave me another interesting insight into feral cats. I never had to house train him or even provide a litter tray.
I noticed that when I threw birdseed out onto the deck Tiger would watch the sparrows and finches through the glass with a casual interest as they pecked up the seed, the tip of his tail flickering gently. But if a tiny mouse appeared all his predatory instincts would instantly be triggered. He just couldn’t help himself. I don’t know that this is true of domestic cats? In their case they often lead such sensorily deprived lives that anything that moves becomes a source of excitement that must be caught. I’ve seen Tiger walk past a couple of Californian quail – who were less than two metres away – without showing any interest whatever. They too seemed to understand that he wasn’t in hunting mode because although they watched him warily they didn’t panic in any way.
Yet when baby rabbit season arrives Tiger becomes a killing machine. To my dismay I would find between four and six headless corpses left in the carport each day. It was like some gruesome horror movie. He was also quite capable of killing adult rabbits but this took more work as they were wary of him. I used to feel vaguely insulted that rabbits would stamp their back legs in urgent warning whenever Tiger appeared, but I barely merited any notice.
If I don’t mention rats it’s because there don’t seem to be any around anymore. There used to be, in the pre-Tiger days. They were a real nuisance. Ironically, I think Tiger has made the area safer for native birds rather than being the threat that feral cats are portrayed as.
Something else I find very interesting is that Tiger doesn’t seem to play with his prey. He simply kills it straight away. Unlike domestic cats he kills to eat, rather than killing for sport. This is very different from many domestic cats. They often seem to feel compelled to seek excitement and entertainment, a bit like humans! With Tiger he seems to have already satisfied this need in stalking and catching his prey. He doesn’t need any additional amusement. I used to think that cats were naturally cruel. I am no longer quite so sure of this.
It makes me wonder whether the cat that famously killed over 100 bats at Mt Ruapehu was in fact truly feral. DOC staff noted that although the cat that they caught was small it was very heavy. I haven’t researched this subject but I notice that when Tiger subsists exclusively on a natural diet he becomes light and lean, despite having more than ample food sources available to him. In winter, when he relies more on kibble I leave for him, he becomes very much heavier. (I’ve seen science papers suggesting that there may be a link between high intake of multiminerals and excess weight.)
It is dangerous to draw wide inferences from a sample size of one, of course, which I am doing with Tiger, but this is what we have done with the dead bat incident also. The cat that was caught in the vicinity had no bat remains in its stomach. Even if it WAS the killer, we cannot be sure it was truly feral. Nor can we be sure, even if it was feral AND the killer, that its behaviour was necesssarily characteristic of all feral cats, just as I can’t be sure that what I observe in Tiger is necessarily true of feral cats in general. We need to remember this before declaring war on all feral cats I suggest. That cats can be a threat to wildlife goes wthout saying, especially ground-nesting birds, but they can also be a real benefit by eliminating stoats and keeping rodent numbers under control.
Although Tiger is usually hostile towards strange cats I witnessed something very odd several years ago. I saw Tiger over in the paddock near a rabbit warren and fairly close by was a female feral cat and her youngish kitten. I could tell by her body language that the female was very wary of Tiger but they did not show overt aggression to one another. I watched through my binoculars as Tiger caught and killed an adult rabbit that couldn’t work out which direction to run away. Then, to my astonishment, he left the carcass for the female and her kitten, and strolled back to the house. So much for animals being incapable of altruism. And Tiger is neutered, remember. The kitten wasn’t his. He wasn’t discharging a paternal responsiblity! For this I think he deserves to be Hunter of the Year.