Highland Wildlife Blog – Wildcat facts and fiction

April 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

By Douglas Richardson, Head of Living Collections, RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

The Captive Animal Protection Society (CAPS), with the help of a couple of their allies, recently managed to get a not inconsiderable number of column inches in various newspapers and internet news sites, including our own Strathspey and Badenoch Herald. As presented, it was a story that needed to be reported and it certainly showed Highland Wildlife Park and its parent organisation, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) in a very negative light.

The main thrust of their outrage was the Scottish Wildcat Conservation Action Plan’s, of which over 20 conservation organisations are a part, secret plot to capture wildcats and bring them into zoos to enhance our profits under the guise of saving the species.

First, the Action Plan has been available to all on the SNH’s website since the formal launch in September 2013. It clearly states that part of the plan is to develop a captive programme, including the likely need for bringing in more cats to ensure the sustainability of the captive population which is to act as both a safety net against extinction and as a source of cats for future release, once areas have been cleared of ferals and cross-bred wildcat/domestic cats; it is important to note that the majority of the Plan is focused upon conservation efforts in the field, including in Strathspey.


What I found most galling was the spurious claim that removing genetically good wildcats from the wild would accelerate their extinction. This completely ignores the fact that the reason for the wildcat’s plight is due to them being genetically swamped by feral domestics and the hybrids that ensue from cross-breeding. If we leave wildcats in these high risk environments, they will most certainly disappear. As for RZSS trying to line its pockets: any cats that are brought in from the wild and incorporated into the captive programme will be kept in large, natural, off-exhibit enclosures, invisible to our visitors. Our commitment to the species will cost us money.

In North Carolina there is a growing population of over 100 red wolves. The red wolf was persecuted by humans, not unlike the wildcat was, and the expanding coyote population began to hybridise with the wolves, again like our situation with the wildcat. The species became extinct as a wild animal in 1980. Luckily a captive programme was initiated in 1969 using a combination of the few individuals in zoos and the selective capture of some of the last pure individuals. In 1987, the first pair of captive-bred wolves were released into North Carolina.

Is it better to conserve a species in the wild? Of course it is, but if the cause of the species’ rarity is affecting all the remaining wild populations and we have the skills to manage the species in captivity until the cause of their rarity is brought under control, we would be neglecting our responsibility if we did not use all the conservation tools at our disposal.

This piece was first published in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald


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