The Fan Hitch Volume 10, Number 3, June 2008

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

In This Issue....

From the Editor: The Fan Hitch... Enhanced

F.I.D.O.: Andrew Maher and Julia Landry

Fan Mail

In the News

Out on the Ice: Three Days with ISDs in North Greenland

Two Friends, Fourteen Dogs…One Quest!

The Nunavut Quest’s 10th Anniversary Run

BAS Vignette: Lampwick Harnesses

Sledge Dog Memorial Fund Update

CAAT’s 2008 Northern Schedule

The Chinook Project Returns to Kimmirut

Product Review Update: Double Driver Sled

IMHO: On Feral Cats and Inuit Sled Dogs

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Index of articles by subject

Index of back issues by volume number

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Ordering Ken MacRury's Thesis

Our comprehensive list of resources

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
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Two of Morgan’s summer 2007 kittens watch us watch them.
                                                               Photo: Hamilton

On Feral Cats and Inuit Sled Dogs

by Mark Hamilton

Janice Dougherty sent us an article from the 12/02/07 New York Times Magazine entitled, "Kill the Cat That Kills the Bird?" written by Bruce Barcott. It set me off. To help put all of what is to follow into some kind of perspective, I need for you to know that both Sue and I like cats. The fact is we've had cats wandering inside our house and in our lives for something around the last thirty years. And we have always kept our cats as strictly indoor cats, since that has been the best way for us to provide for their security and protection.

But that changed in a pretty major way several years back. One late winter morning we noticed a young, desperately hungry gray cat eating birdseed from the ground underneath our pole feeder. We were unwilling to just watch the animal starve to death, so we put out a bowl of cat food. Once the cat established itself as a regular presence on our property and in our garage, we started referring to it as Morgan, a name suitable for either gender although we guessed from the cat's features it was a male.

The following fall we learned that Morgan was in fact a female, when a couple of kittens followed her into the garage one day. A few months later, in mid-winter, we managed to get the one surviving kitten into rescue. The following spring, two days before we left for Nunavik, the deck in our backyard began growling at our dogs. A wildlife pest control provider pulled Morgan's next litter – five kittens – out from underneath our deck and put them into rescue.

This past late summer Morgan brought still another litter onto our property around about the time I was working in the driveway building our new dog box. Six kittens hung out in our garage watching my progress whenever Morgan wasn't caring for them. And again earlier this spring Morgan presented us with yet another litter, this time three babies barely a month old.

Caring for feral cats and kittens can be even more of a challenge during the cold winter months. During that period we make extra efforts for the cats relating to drinking water, caloric intake and shelter to assist them with their survival. In turn the cats have provided us with an extremely valuable service; they hunt rodents. We no longer have a rodent problem anywhere near our house or garage. In balance we feel our relationship with the feral cats is mutually beneficial, that there is value for both parties. Sounds kind of like a contract, doesn't it?

The feral cats are not pets by any stretch of the imagination. The fact is that not one of them is willing to be handled by us or any other human. They don't seek to be in our presence except at feeding times, even though they appreciate the things we provide for them. And they work hard for their living, hunting widely, on a daily basis on our property. They are deadly hunters when it comes to mice, voles, moles and the occasional chipmunk. One of the young cats has even successfully stalked a gray squirrel, although the results didn't turn out quite the way he planned when he jumped on its back. Only rarely do we find bird feathers marking a kill site, and those so far have been either mourning dove or blue jay kills, not the songbirds most people seek to protect.

There is, of course, a downside to a continually increasing population of feral cats on our property and we are taking steps to address the two more important ones: population explosion and disease. At this point we have finally been able to trap, with the help of a cat rescue organization, Morgan, Big Daddy (her mate) and all but one of the surviving four juvenile kittens. All were taken to a veterinarian for physical examinations, rabies shots, treatment for internal and external parasites and altering. Unsuitable as house pets, they were released back on our property, their home territory. And we mean to get that elusive fourth littermate trapped and into the vet's office as well. The three very young kittens of Morgan's most recent, and now final litter, were extracted from the den their mother dug and put directly into rescue.

Sue and I spend considerable time observing these feral cats and have been comparing their behavior to that of our three house cats. The dissimilarities between the feral and the house cats make for a striking comparison, going well beyond just their hunting skills. The ferals live within a tightly organized social structure. There is a social hierarchy that each cat knows and to which they all adhere. Life within their community is peaceful; outside that community, not so peaceful. Our conclusion: we have a group of feral cats living here that in a number of ways reminds us of our Inuit Dogs.

We're enjoying studying the feral cats and hope they stick around here. At the same time we have acknowledged there are both health hazards and a downside for the local environment that comes from their presence.  But their control of the local rodent population is useful to us. So we are taking the steps necessary to protect them and us from rabies. We have no intention of killing these cats or otherwise getting rid of them, but we are almost done removing all of them from the gene pool as breeding cats. We believe these are the responsible things to do.

Across the Arctic there are people committed to the traditional Inuit Sled Dog. In Greenland there is a relatively large population of the breed. In northern Canada they are found only in some locations and in limited numbers. But in northern Canada there are people working to establish teams of traditional ISDs, as well as working toward the re-establishment of the mushing tradition so as not to lose that element of Inuit culture.

Greenland created a legal barrier to dogs entering into the sledding region of their north in order to protect their Inuit Dog population from the threat of contamination by cross breeding. Canada has no such prohibition and each year people from the south go north to work under contract, many bringing with them un-altered pets. "Intact" dogs represent as much of a risk to existing populations of ISDs as dogs lacking vaccinations for preventable diseases. This is an area where the governments of Nunavut and Nunavik should step in and protect their natural resource, the Inuit Sled Dog. Protection of a natural resource is an appropriate area for government involvement. In fact it should be viewed as their duty. And it is the responsible thing to do.

Out of their pen for a romp, two pups in Kuujjuaq
 "hunt down" a delicious snack.   Photo: Hamilton
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