Saving the red-zone cats

TOUCHING: Tim Newman tames Lindy while Janes watches on.
TOUCHING: Tim Newman tames Lindy while Janes watches on.

The hunt for a new pet led Jane Newman on a crusade to save stray and feral cats from overrunning the residential red zone.

It began, as big things often do, with the smallest of ideas. Christchurch geologist Dr Jane Newman, who had traditionally been a "dog person", was looking for a new pet. Her previous cat had died and, as time passed, she felt ready for another. Newman figured she would adopt a stray because that fitted her ethical sensibilities.

Red zone cat
Red zone cat

By chance, in February this year, she read an article in The Press by gardening writer Diana Madgin. It said: "At night, just me awake, I feed the stray cat that was once someone's moggy, too shy to come out from under the hedge until I fill her bowl beneath the kowhai. She runs away from a human voice, so I don't alarm her."

Newman contacted Madgin and the pair made a plan to trap the abandoned cat, with Newman suspecting it could be her next pet. That cat is now called Bilbo and despite being stand-offish at the beginning, he now purrs himself to sleep on the end of Newman's bed at night.

Bilbo was just the start. In the past six months or so Newman has turned her cat-trapping idea into a project that has outgrown itself. Now she is asking for help from cat lovers because she believes Bilbo is probably just the tip of a feline iceberg. First she came for Bilbo, then she came for Thistle, Toby, Dante, Heather, Skaara, Hades and quite a few more.

Crazy cat lady?

Not where Newman is concerned. She approached her Red Zone Cat project with science and spreadsheets. You'd be the crazy one to laugh off hard data.

Newman, a geologist who contributed to the Royal Commission on the Pike River Disaster, has so far spent upwards of $10,000 of her own money on cages, motion-sensitive camera equipment, food, testing, neutering, spaying, nets - and that doesn't include her time.

Her adult children, Rowena and Tim, are heavily involved and the project has snowballed to include the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), the SPCA, various cat trusts, Massey University, the Student Volunteer Army and, most crucially, members of the community willing to foster these lost, feral and abandoned cats until they are tame enough to find a "forever home".

You might wonder what the problem could possibly be with a few wild cats in a feral setting such as the residential red zone, but Newman's project has revealed a far bigger problem than assumed.

People have moved, some simply left their pets behind, some cats keep returning to their former patch, kitten season is coming and so are the bulldozers. There are tom cats, hardened to the wild life and accustomed to scavenging. New litters are born, the kittens are raised without human contact, making them aggressive to human touch, and places like the SPCA and Cats Protection League cannot house feral cats who have not been socialised with humans or other cats. Little Johnny certainly won't choose the cat who scratches and hisses from its cage.

It's a Sunday evening in a deserted patch of Locksley Ave in Christchurch's residential red zone. A couple of people walk along the riverbank, but no-one really pays attention to the houses any more.

Newman is up a driveway in a Cera- approved hi-vis vest setting a cat trap. Christine, a woman who lives across the river, has been Newman's eyes on the ground. She has seen four or five cats return to one particular section and a night-vision camera set up by Newman has revealed a small tabby constantly returning to the scene.

Christine has fed and called the tabby at around the same time every night. She and Newman colluded to put out food for it in a cage. The cage they have been using does not have an automatic trap door so, slowly, the cat has grown accustomed to crawling into a cage to eat.

Tonight, the proper trap has been set. Christine sticks to her routine, calling the cat and laying out a plate of cat biscuits. Then they wait. Usually the motion- sensitive camera would allow them to wait further away, but it is playing up tonight so they wait quietly nearby.

Newman says the perfect scenario is to cover the cage with a blanket as soon as possible after the cage door shuts because the darkness tends to stop the cat from panicking. Some cats go wild, thrashing around, but the quiet ones can mean just as much trouble.

Newman says she learned her lesson once, letting a quiet cat out of a cage in a vet's room. It began hissing and practically climbed up the walls.

The tabby they have just caught is perfectly quiet and they really have no clue what they have on their hands.

Newman takes the cat back to her Somerfield home, where daughter Rowena waits. The pair wear gloves and get a net ready, just in case. Carefully, they transfer the tabby to a larger cage and the slow process of taming begins.

As Newman took more of an interest in red zone cats, it dawned on her how many stray, lost or feral cats were roaming the area. People living near empty sections might tell her they'd noticed one black cat but, with the night-vision camera, Newman found it was more like four or five black cats returning to the area.

As she investigated further, she realised red zone cats were more nocturnal than domestic pets that had adjusted to their owners' sleeping patterns. Watching the area at night via camera feed led her to believe there could be more than 350 in the red zone, a larger number than anyone had estimated.

The camera catches all sorts of sights, including the odd possum stealing the cat food, cheeky hedgehogs, a rodent or two and a bit of mating.

So far, 18 cats have been trapped. They are all tested for feline aids and leukaemia. Cats with these diseases are euthanised but the others, Newman believes, can be tamed and re-homed.

The cats are neutered, microchipped and vaccinated at Christchurch vets McMaster & Heap.

The scientist in her keeps a spreadsheet to record details such as date of capture, whether disease testing proved negative or positive and other comments on each cat's manner, for example: "very fearful but not a biter". Of the 18 cats, six have had to be put down.

Some of her earliest captures are still at Newman's home. Both Tim and Rowena have become vital to the work. Tim, who has an interest in medieval re-enactment, uses rapier sword gloves to tame the cats and introduce them to human touch.

He says he has had to learn not to flinch if a cat hisses or lashes out at him.

"They move fast and if you jerk back then they've won. You have to train yourself not to react.

"I just take the hit or the bite. I can't feel a thing through these gloves, and almost the moment they learn it's not going to work with them trying to get me away, they stop.

"They just have no interest in being amiable, but they stop going on the offensive and it triggers them to groom themselves, which calms them down, even the wild ones."

The cats are kept in separate cages, but are introduced to others and often left in the same room with another cat in a cage who is tamer so they have behaviour on which to model their own.

The thirteenth cat to be trapped, later named Toby, was recorded overnight and appeared to be limping. He had clearly once been someone's pet because he wore a collar. However, one of Toby's front paws had been caught up in the collar and when he was eventually trapped, a large, raw sore had developed.

Once the vet had seen to Toby, Newman tried (unsuccessfully) to find its previous owner. However, after a few months Toby was adopted by a friend of Tim's.

Quentin Bourne is Toby's new owner. The cat has been renamed "Carlos" and is settling into its new home well after just a few weeks.

"I just preferred to get a rescue cat than get a new kitten - and he likes me, and gets on with my flatmates, which is good, " Bourne says.

Knowing one of her rescues is going to a good home makes the project worthwhile, Newman says.

They have managed to find the previous owners of a couple too.

"I feel such an emotional investment with these vulnerable cats. We are very strategic and very intuitive. I guess we're combining science and intuition, " Newman says.

In the beginning, she and Tim "thought like a cat" in choosing three locations in the red zone where they set up feeding stations.

They have Cera permission to be at the sites and adhere to any regulations.

Newman was hoping to get funding for a cat census of the area but was turned down and has approached the Student Volunteer Army for help.

She has also managed to get Massey University veterinary school on board to do the testing at a subsidised rate.

SPCA Canterbury chief executive officer Barry Helem organises a quarterly forum so members of other animal rescue groups can collaborate, share ideas and resources.

"And while our philosophies often differ, we're in the same game at the end of the day, " he says. "SPCA's core role is to enforce the Animal Welfare Act, caring for abused or sick animals and protecting others from cruelty. If there is room at the shelter, the SPCA will house cats, but their priority is to those who can be rehomed.

"Some of these cats have been in the red zone for coming up three generations without social contact. No-one sees these cats because they are nocturnal, so it's hard to get a handle on numbers.

"Some can be borderline. We have very experienced staff who can tell if an animal can be socialised.

"On the other side of things, some of those cats who are wild find it extremely stressful being in a cage, so we have to think of their welfare too."

He says Newman's idea is fantastic, but its ongoing success will be contingent on volunteer support. "We need people to commit to the long term and they need to know their way around an animal.

"All the trusts are competing for volunteers and it's coming up to kitten season. The need is great for space and resources. Even we have a tough time and we have a really strong brand."

He says many people do not realise that when they pay around $100 for an SPCA pet, the organisation may already have spent $400 bringing that animal back to health.

The cost is something Newman realised soon after starting her project, which is why she is relying on community help.

Cera general manager operations John Cumberpatch says Newman's data may be useful for future veterinary studies or other academic research by animal welfare organisations.

Cera has a responsibility to manage weeds and pests, but says so far it has not seen any indication that red zone cats require a maintenance or control programme.

Meanwhile, Lindi, the wild tabby cat caught by Newman and Christine, is coming along nicely.

She wears a silver collar with an electronic locator tag so she can roam Newman's house and still be found at the end of the day.

She has become friendly with another red zone cat called Thistle, and Newman is confident a potential owner for Lindi or one of her other rescue cats will be found soon.

Says Tim: "We were all academics of varying types. We're all cat herders now."


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