Feral conflict rising

  • Dennis Fujimoto/The Garden Island file

    Wild Hawaii cats, like the one in this photo, and their impacts to the state’s endangered species are the fodder for FERAL, an upcoming documentary on the Hawaiian cat conversation.

Media man Daniel Clarke got more than he bargained for when he started asking questions about monk seals during a Hawaii vacation.

The quest for marine mammal footage sent him chasing feral cats “down a rabbit hole” the Rhode Island filmmaker says he never imagined and led to the creation of the documentary FERAL, which looks at how Hawaii’s wild cat populations are affecting endangered species and at the controversy that surrounds the narrative.

“I set off to make a film that presented the various mitigation techniques from an unbiased perspective,” Clarke said. “I genuinely had little to no knowledge of feral cats prior to stumbling into this story.”

As he started digging, what Clarke found were conflicting viewpoints, clashing perspectives and a fierce debate about the impact of wild cats in Hawaii and the correct response methods — varying views on everything from how they impact the spread of disease to the toll they take on endangered populations.

“My belief is that the conflict has risen to such a level that many organizations and government officials that could seriously help are scared to touch it,” Clarke said.

Toxoplasmosis and its potentially deadly impact on monk seals is the main issue Clarke discovered through connecting with Hawaii Marine Animal Response while on vacation.

“I asked why the seals were endangered and what (were) the major threats to their survival. They listed three factors, the third being cats. From there I learned more about the situation in general,” Clarke said.

The parasite, known as Toxoplasma gondii, uses only the feline digestive system in order to reproduce and can cause deadly infections in mammals, including monk seals and humans according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Death in seals is caused by inflammation and dysfunction in the heart, liver and brain. Compromised immune systems and brain functions are also symptoms.

NOAA points out the parasite can create cysts in muscle tissue and organs of fish, birds and other mammals, but T. gondii doesn’t always cause disease symptoms and some organizations, like the Kauai Community Cat Project, say it’s not really negatively impacting monk seal populations.

Basil Scott, of Kauai Community Cat Project, agreed to be in the film in order to “create more realistic dialogue on this issue.”

“Toxoplasmosis is not impacting the monk seal species, or people,” he said.

He and others at KCCP think the impacts of the parasite are exaggerated by “anti-cat coalitions” and point to the recovery of both nene goose and monk seal populations as proof.

He also points to a lack of evidence in humans are dealing with the parasite and says it is becoming a “disease of the 20th century, not the 21st.”

“We looked at toxoplasmosis in people as part of the feral cat task forces, and found that since 2009, there have been zero reported cases on Kauai,” Scott said.

While there have been no reported cases of toxoplasmosis on Kauai since 2009, reporting the parasite to the state isn’t mandatory.

Endangered species preservation is the crux of the documentary. To explain cats’ impact on Newell’s shearwater and other endangered seabird populations, Clarke touched base with Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

“We were happy to be part of the discussion,” said Andre Raine, of KESRP. “Cats, indeed all introduced predators, represent an important conservation threat to our native and endangered wildlife.”

He pointed to a May 17 report of a breeding Hawaiian petrel being dragged out of its burrow and killed by a cat on Kauai as evidence.

It was the first cat attack of the 2018 Hawaiian petrel breeding season, and Raine said it probably won’t be the last.

“No matter how remote or seemingly protected an area is, introduced predators — be they cats, rats or pigs — are present across the landscape,” Raine said. “Cats in urban and coastal areas are also killing large numbers of native Hawaiian songbirds and waterbirds.”

The difference between mountain and urban cats is a point Scott feels is necessary to emphasize, because he says they’re different kinds of animals. He says blurring the line between them confuses the issue.

“Mountain-living cats fully meet the definition of feral, and those cats live as a fully self-sustaining population that sticks to wild areas,” he said.

Scott continued: “Cats that KCCP works with live in human-populated areas and do not meet the definition of feral, nor do they have any significant impact on endangered species at the species level.”

The full documentary, which sits at just about 50 minutes in length, isn’t yet out and a date for release hasn’t been set, but those involved with DLNR and KESRP say the trailer looks like a fair approach to the issue.

Scott says he cooperated with Clarke, but didn’t add his opinion on the trailer.

“From what we have seen it looks like it explores the issue, bringing in all viewpoints,” Raine said.

He continued: “Sadly, the issue of cats typically comes across as an ‘us versus them’ issue. Everyone, on all sides of the debate, are animal lovers and all of us work hard to protect other living things.”

Sheri Mann, Kauai branch manager for DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife said the goal was to contribute to rational and balanced reporting and said it “seemingly really wants to help facilitate discussions that might lead to solutions.”

The documentary explores human euthanasia, sterilization and Trap-Neuter-Release programs, and sanctuaries as potential solutions to Hawaii’s ample feral and community cat populations.

“I want to elevate the conversation because it is a dire situation,” Clarke said.

He continued: “At the end of the day, not enough is being done to reduce the numbers of feral cats, and more importantly there is so little cohesion in the efforts that if we continue this way, the problem is going to get worse.”

The trailer for FERAL is available at Clarke’s media platform, Escape The Zoo (www.escapethezoo.com), and on Youtube.


Jessica Else, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or at jeslse@thegardenisland.com

  1. harry oyama June 13, 2018 4:42 am Reply

    In New Zealand where cats have decimated the native wildlife, they had enough of the cat problem and allows hunters and home owners to shoot them on sight. We should have the same solution, none of this non-sense “catch and release”. Those that feed feral cats should be fined, arrested and made to pay for this program to get rid of feral cats.

    1. Just Saying June 13, 2018 1:14 pm Reply

      This comment is derived from abject baloney. Just because one extremist named Gareth Morgan advocates such a thing doesn’t mean it happens!

      1. Johanna van de Woestijne June 16, 2018 2:10 pm Reply

        Dear Just Saying, I think you need to google ‘ad hominem’ attack. It is not a convincing form of argument, to anyone not already in your echo chamber. You show your true colors, using such argument, rather any science or even personal experience.

  2. Makaala Kaaumoana June 13, 2018 6:12 am Reply

    There is no doubt that on Kauai where we have fewer predators like mongoose, cats on the landscape are killing wildlife that has limited chance for survival elsewhere. We have a unique and critical responsibility to reduce the threats to these protected species. Cats must be kept indoors. Period.

  3. Uncleaina June 13, 2018 9:56 am Reply

    Basil Scott – your statement “Toxiplasmosis is not impacting monk seals or humans” shows your ignorance. What, everyone is just making up stuff about toxoplasmosis just to make your feral cats look bad? Just because your cough “task force” didn’t think it’s true? And I love this delusional thinking that somehow there’s “Mountain cats” and “non mountain” cats that don’t move around. I guess these cats stay up kuhuna road but never walk down Kawaihau road? What were the cats I saw up by the lodge in kokee? How about the ones at milemarker 13? Which ones are which? And how about major nesting areas that are near the shore? I guess your feral cats are so well trained that they ignore the baby birds eh? I hope this film makes clear how poorly informed your views are. I still check every feral cat I see and I have only seen ONE with tipped ears out of HUNDREDS that I have looked at.

  4. Alf101 June 13, 2018 3:08 pm Reply

    What we really need to do is find Alf and introduce him and his home planet occupiers to Kauai to control the cat population.

  5. galumpher June 14, 2018 9:45 am Reply

    Basil Scott is entirely incorrect in his assessment of the threat of toxoplasma gondii to native wildlife. It helped drive the Hawaiian crow to extinction in the wild, it kills the nene, it is the number one disease threat to monk seals, and has been found in cetaceans. His is an opinion but it doesn’t change the facts. We need to find a comprehensive way to reduce the number of cats on the landscape, a goal everyone wants to see. But in order to have a constructive conversation between all parties, we need to accept the scientific evidence that exists and not cherrypick or deny the things that may demonstrate that cats are a threat to many things.

  6. Johanna van de Woestijne June 16, 2018 12:47 pm Reply

    In one kitty cam study of pet cats (not feral), well fed, with homes and care, showed that even pet cats hunt and kill. 44% of the pet cats wearing cameras for 10 days were found to kill wildlife, and less than half those kills were brought back to the owners, and only 28% of the kills were consumed. Cats are instinctive predators, hunting even when well fed. Feral cats generally have much higher rates of parasites than indoor only cats, fed fully cooked food and not predating wildlife. It is simply false to say there have been no cases of toxoplasmosis in recent years, completely false. It is not reportable and that information is between a woman and her doctor. As to the general population, the cat parasites are also a public health concern, because it is a leading preventable infectious disease cause of vision loss, globally. Ocular toxoplasmosis in the USA occurs in about 24,000 people a year. In congenital cases, eventually about 80% will develop ocular lesions, which might not be present at birth. To say Tg (the cat parasite Toxoplasma gondii) is not affecting wildife health or public health is flat out wrong. Public health decisions should not be left in the hands of cat fetishists.

  7. Al-Hajji Frederick H Minshall June 17, 2018 7:17 pm Reply

    Hawaii has been overrun with invasive felines since Mark Twain visited those islands 150 years ago. It is one of an increasing number of regions which must eradicate cats, and then outlaw their importation or possession. Haoles and their invasive animals have already turned Hawaii into a huge outdoor litter-box festooned with invasive plant species straight out of the Walmart garden center, and where the stench of cat feces and urine is carried on the breeze rather than the scent of the sea and native flora.

  8. ung427 May 8, 2019 12:51 pm Reply

    Cat ownership is fine in Kauai. Cats can be very good pets and they should always be fixed so they cannot reproduce, unless you are a breeder, and breeders should be licensed. Cats do fine in the house, and enjoy the outdoors also. I wouldn’t mind building catwalks from people’s houses to relatively large outdoor enclosures in the backyard, covered all around with either chickenwire or something similar. Allowing any pet to roam free is dangerous for your pet as well as irresponsible. I wouldn’t want someone else’s cat using my kids sand box as a toilet. All pet owners should be responsible, and let’s not resort to name calling based on race. There is an ethical solution on both sides. I say look up the beautifully made cat enclosures complete with cat walks connecting to the home, cats love them as long as they are large enough and they solve the problem. As long as you have the material, I wouldn’t mind building them on the weekends for cat owners.

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