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World Wildlife Day A Reminder For Pet Owners To Help Protect Native Species

While pets are the centre of our attention and members of our families, they are full of animal instinct. It’s not something most of us like thinking about, but dogs and cats have an innate ability to stalk and injure wildlife. For responsible pet parents, that means keeping them well managed, especially when out and about.

With 3 March heralding World Wildlife Day, a United Nations celebration of the world's wild animals and plants and their contribution to our lives and the planet’s health, it’s a good time to explore steps we can take to keep our dogs and cats away from our precious native species.

This year’s theme - 'Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation' - encourages pet parents everywhere to consider how they can do their bit, says Michelle Le Long, Chief Operating Officer for pet insurance specialist PD Insurance (pd.co.nz).

“Unfortunately, both cats and dogs can be culprits behind bird and mammal harassment,” she notes. “For example, domestic moggies might seem harmless, but a 2010 University of Otago study estimated New Zealand’s 1.4 million domestic cats kill at least 18.76 million animals a year, including 1.12 million native birds.”

The study found species like piwakawaka/fantail only existed in urban areas because they restocked their populations with birds from outlying areas, as cats killed all the urban birds.

Preventive measures for cats and dogs

The same research found simple solutions can make a difference. Ideal methods to protect wildlife include keeping cats inside and contained with a fence or outdoor run, limiting the number of cats per home, and desexing. To protect kiwi from dogs, the best option is to keep them on a lead or, better yet, entirely away from kiwi areas. Keep your dog in an enclosed area to keep it from wandering when it’s at home.

Pooches on beaches and in the bush

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Dogs can also have negative impacts on native species via predation and disturbance. Flightless birds such as kiwi and weka, and birds that live on our beaches such as dotterel, blue penguin, godwits and oyster catchers, are particularly vulnerable.

The Department of Conservation (DOC) says the mere presence of dogs is enough to stress shorebirds. “Off-leash dogs that chase birds interrupt the foraging and resting time of shorebirds, and the birds expend large amounts of valuable energy escaping pursuing dogs.”

Dogs are also, unfortunately, a major predator of kiwi. DOC notes that predation of adult kiwi by dogs can cause catastrophic declines in local populations. All dogs have the potential to kill kiwi. In some populations, dogs have surpassed stoats and ferrets as the main cause of decline. Where we expect to see brown kiwi live for 30 or more years, dogs can reduce kiwi lifespan to 13-14 years. The brown kiwi has a natural life expectancy of up to 65 years, but in Northland they only live an average of 14 years partially due to dog attacks.

Brush up on the rules

Many conservation areas are closed to dogs or have leash or permit requirements, but DOC Science Advisor Laura Boren says plenty of people likely aren’t aware of the rules and get caught out as they don’t check before they go somewhere.

“Jump online at www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/know-before-you-go/dog-access/ to see what locations are dog friendly, and what are off-limits or have special requirements to protect wildlife,” she advises.

She has three tips for observing the rules when you and your dog are out and about:

Know before you go: check online for rules at different locations - councils may have recently changed them and signs may not be up to date.

Keep an eye out for wildlife: always carry your lead and leash your dog when around wildlife populations. Also, let others around know if seals or penguins are present.

Call your dog to you as soon as you spot wildlife: if your dog doesn’t return to you consistently on command, consider obedience training. Classes help you and your dog to bond and become a team, so you know they will be under control and safe.

Dogs are allowed in many parks managed by city and regional councils. Check for permitted dog trails at www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/things-to-do/walking-and-tramping/.

Protecting our islands

DOC Senior Biodiversity Ranger David Wilson says dogs can do considerable damage to recovering bird populations in a very short amount of time, by killing or injuring the birds or destroying their nests. “Anyone planning to visit a pest-free island needs to know the rules, and it’s actually pretty simple – dogs are not permitted,” he says.

Serious consequences

Anyone caught breaking the rules could face a hefty fine or court prosecution, depending on the nature of the offence. DOC can enforce the Dog Control Act 1996, which includes prison time or a fine of $20,000 for the owner of a dog that kills protected wildlife.

As the court can also order the destruction of your dog, it’s crucial to know and follow the rules to ensure you and your pooch can enjoy a safe and stress-free outing every time.

“Being a responsible pet parent doesn’t take a lot more than consideration, awareness of the rules, and an appreciation for the fauna and flora that makes up the kaleidoscope of New Zealand’s natural beauty. Taking little steps can make a big difference, while contributing to doing your bit in a partnership for wildlife conservation,” Le Long concludes.

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