A contest planned for children in New Zealand to hunt and kill feral cats as part of a drive to protect native species has been axed following backlash from the public and animal rights groups.
The event would have been part of a fundraiser organized by the North Canterbury Hunting Competition for the Rotherham School, located in the Canterbury region of South Island.
Organizers on Saturday had announced a new junior category for children under 14 in the annual competition – to hunt feral cats for a top prize of 250 New Zealand dollars ($150).
The announcement drew public anger leading organizers to withdraw the event on Monday.
In a statement issued Wednesday, organizers said “vile and inappropriate emails and messages had been sent to the school and others involved.”
“We are incredibly disappointed in this reaction and would like to clarify that this competition is an independent community run event,” the statement read.
While cats are a popular and beloved pet among many New Zealanders, feral cats have been a long-standing issue between animal lovers and authorities because of the impact they can have other wild animals.
In neighboring Australia, authorities say feral cats threaten the survival of more than 100 native species. Feral cats are blamed for killing millions of birds, reptiles, frogs and mammals, every day, prompting authorities to arrange regular culls.
Organizers of the contest in Canterbury maintained that the junior hunting tournament to kill feral cats, using a firearm or other means, was about “protecting native birds and other vulnerable species.”
“Our sponsors and school safety are our main priority, so the decision has been made to withdraw this category for this year to avoid further backlash at this time,” it said.
“To clarify, for all hunting categories, our hunters are required to abide by firearms act 1983 and future amendments as well as the animal welfare act 1999.”
Addressing concerns from the public, organizers had earlier announced rules to discourage young participants from targeting pets.
Any child who brought in a microchipped cat would have been disqualified, organizers said.
The group also noted that scheduled hunts for other categories like local pigs and deer would still proceed.
The New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said it was “both pleased and relieved” that the cat-killing contest for children had been removed. “Children, as well as adults, will not be able to tell the difference between a feral, stray or a frightened domesticated cat,” the SPCA said.
“There is a good chance someone’s pet may be killed during this event. In addition, children often use air rifles in these sorts of event which increase the likelihood of pain and distress and can cause a prolonged death,” it added.
Animals rights group PETA also welcomed the decision to cancel the event.
In a statement,Jason Baker, the group’s Asia Vice President said,”Encouraging kids to hunt down and kill animals is a sure-fire way to raise adults who solve problems with violence … We need to foster empathy and compassion in kids, not lead them to believe animals are ‘less than’ humans while rewarding them for brutality.”
The event attracted significant overseas attention, including from British comedian Ricky Gervais, a known animal lover with more than 15 million followers on Twitter.
He slammed the proposed cat hunt in a sarcastic tweet, saying: “Right. We need some new PR ideas to make the world love New Zealand. Maybe something involving kids & kittens. Yes, Hargreaves?”
New Zealand is one of the world’s last remote island nations and has no native land mammals besides bats.
There have been official campaigns against cats in previous years – including one that encouraged cat lovers to avoid replacing their pets when they die.
“Cats are the only true sadists of the animal world, serial killers who torture without mercy,” said then-Prime Minister John Key, who himself had a cat named Moonbeam.
“Historically, we know that feral cats were responsible for the extinction of six bird species and are leading agents of decline in populations of birds, bats, frogs and lizards,” Helen Blackie, a biosecurity consultant at Boffa Miskell told CNN affiliate RNZ.
Blackie, who has studied feral cats for two decades, said numbers had exploded in the last decade, and in some areas where pests were tracked by camera, feral cats outnumbered other species like possums.