independent

Friday 16 November 2018

Be wary of natural born pet killers from coyotes to foxes

Jeanie was taken by coyotes, one snowy day in Canada
Jeanie was taken by coyotes, one snowy day in Canada

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

When visiting relatives in Nova Scotia recently, I heard a sad tale. My aunt's collie-cross dog, Jeanie, was accustomed to going for walks on her own in the local woodlands. The area was genuine Canadian wilderness, with no local farm livestock to worry about, so this was never seen as a big problem. Jeanie gained much pleasure from chasing chipmunks, sniffing out scents of game birds like grouse, and generally enjoying being out and about in the open air.

One winter's day, when the snow was thick on the ground, Jeanie didn't come home at dusk, for her dinner. She always returned for supper, so my aunt was immediately worried. What could have happened?

It was simple to find out, as fresh snow had fallen early in the day, and it had then stopped snowing. Jeanie's tracks could easily be followed in the snow with a torchlight. My aunt traced her from the back porch, along a track into the local woodland for a few hundred yards, into an open clearing. And this is where she found evidence of the tragedy: the snow had been trodden down flat over an area with a circumference of ten meters. And there was red blood mixed with the tramped down snow. Then on the far side of the area, there were the distinctive footprints of three or four large coyotes, tracking away from in the opposite direction. It was obvious that Jeanie had encountered a pack of hungry coyotes, and despite putting up a valiant battle she had been slain. My aunt never found her body.

Here in Ireland, we are lucky enough not to have serious predators: in Nova Scotia, as well as the coyotes, there are bears and even rumours of wolves. There is also an ongoing threat from the skies, with eagles occasionally snatching small dogs from back yards.

In this country, the biggest carnivorous mammals are foxes and badgers, and it's rare for them to attack pets. Of course, dogs can't be allowed to run wild in the countryside, because of the damage they would cause to sheep and other livestock. Their lives would be at risk if they did so, not from other animals but from the guns of farmers who would be justifiably looking after the animals under their care.

Foxes are not entirely innocent: they are a blight to poultry owners, regularly snatching hens and ducks from back yards. Part of the responsibility of being a good poultry keeper is to ensure that your charges are penned up safely at night in fox proof accommodation.

I have heard of people witnessing their pet cats being snatched by foxes too: healthy adult cats would be too much for a fox, but they have been seen taking weaker animals, like kittens and elderly cats.

We are also unfortunate enough to have an introduced predator in Ireland: mink have escaped from fur farms and bred in the wild. They are a far more difficult carnivore to keep out than foxes, slinking through tiny openings into hen runs, causing devastation then sneaking away, unseen.

In London, there has been an ongoing mystery around multiple deaths of cats in certain suburbs, with cats going missing, then their mutilated bodies turning up later. The assailant was dubbed "The Croydon Cat Killer", and cat owners were warned to keep their pets indoors to prevent them from becoming the next victims. More than 400 cats were killed, and suspicious cat deaths were reported across England, as far north as Manchester.

Eventually, the police became involved. The bodies of the victims were submitted for forensic analysis by experienced pathologists. The report of their findings was released during the summer, and their conclusions were clear: there was no crazed Croydon Cat Killer. There was no evidence of traces of clothing, human DNA or a murder weapon and no CCTV footage had been recovered. Humans had not played a deliberate part in the deaths of these much loved pets.

The cause was a combination of the mundane and the worrying. First, many of the deaths were proven to be caused by road traffic accidents. Cats - especially young cats- don't have much road sense, and they can be impossible for cars to avoid if they dash out into their path. A car will cause devastating injuries to a cat, and while this cause is obvious when a cat is found beside the road, if a cats is relocated to somewhere else, it's harder to make the connection. Dead cats are sometimes moved by people who feel that it's undignified for a cat to be left in such a visible place, and they are also sometimes moved by predators like foxes. The fox might then eat some of the cat before abandoning its body, causing the types of mutilations which made people suspect a sadistic human killer.

As well as eating cats that have already been killed, the pathologists proved that some foxes were actually preying on living pet cats. The fox population in urban areas like London has boomed, and with the widespread use of tamper-proof wheelie bins, it has become more difficult for foxes to find food to scavenge. For this reason, they get more and more hungry, and this then leads to them becoming bolder. When a fox has learned that it can successfully snatch a cat and enjoy a feline meal, the behaviour tends to be repeated.

If you have a frail cat - whether elderly or young - be aware of the risk from foxes.

Wexford People

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