37 cats and counting: what happened to the furry friends in a small town?

Something is happening to cats in a North Canterbury town, and the residents want answers.

In two years, 37 cats from Oxford, a rural town with fewer than 900 letterboxes, have vanished without a trace.

And those are just the cats whose owners posted a missing pet ad in the town’s local Facebook groups, say local residents. They say there are plenty that don’t end up online, instead get shared on noticeboards or in letterboxes.

“The more I asked people if they’d seen my cat, the more stories I heard of cats disappearing without a sighting,” said Lisa Watson​, whose family cat Spider went missing in May.

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“Someone is known to have a gin trap… but no one wants to point fingers,” she said.

Stuff spoke to multiple people who declined to go on the record out of concern for backlash, but also believed gin traps – which are banned under the Animal Welfare Act 1999 – were being used in town.

“I’m too scared to let them out,” she said of her remaining pets. “[Spider] never wandered off… you don’t want to fear the worst.

“He’s four years old… he’s a member of the family.”

Lisa Watson's cat, Spider, is a much missed member of the family.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff

Lisa Watson’s cat, Spider, is a much missed member of the family.

Phaedra Burwell​ felt the same way when beloved family cat Kulu went missing a fortnight ago.

Despite a $200 reward, search parties and flier drops, no one had sighted her.

“It doesn’t make sense that so many go missing. It makes you fear the worst. I’ve just ordered a GPS collar for our remaining cat, I should have bought them sooner.

“We just want closure.”

Her son Liam Burwell, who’d raised Kulu as a kitten but now worked out of town, volunteered to place a missing cat ad on social media.

He said when he sat down and started scrolling, the number of missing cats was “pretty shocking.”

Like other confused missing cat owners, Watson said Spider never wandered off, and feared the worst.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff

Like other confused missing cat owners, Watson said Spider never wandered off, and feared the worst.

Across the different Facebook groups linked to the community, the Burwells counted 37 cats within two years who were still missing.

Liam Burwell said only one in 10 missing cats ever seemed to return, and that was only counting the ones online.

He began messaging other owners of missing cats for more details on the disappearances, “I thought there could be a pattern,” he said.

That included messaging Watson, as well as Maria Lowe, whose cat Felix went missing in May 2020.

Felix, her “big, possum-eyed” cat was her $1000 cat, she said. As a kitten he’d been rescued from a farm by her daughter and later required surgery on an ulcer. She said she “decked out” the spare bedroom for him to recover in.

Liam Burwell raised Kulu as a kitten. He doesn’t just want answers for his cat, but for the dozens of others gone without a trace.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff

Liam Burwell raised Kulu as a kitten. He doesn’t just want answers for his cat, but for the dozens of others gone without a trace.

“He was so special… he used to hide on my bed under the tri-pillow when I came home.

“If I called to him, a wee white paw would come out. I’d ask, ‘what’re you doing under there?’ and he’d start purring.”

Two weeks after he went missing, during which time she’d searched along streets and neighbouring farmland, she said she stood outside on a “dead, dead calm night.”

“I called out to him and I heard him call back.”

She said the meows were faint, but she kept calling in encouragement.

“Then I heard a gunshot and my heart just sank.”

She never figured out where exactly the noise came from. To this day it left her furious, and afraid for her remaining pets.

“Even though it’s been over two years, it’s a horrible feeling to know someone is doing this.”

Knowing Burwell was asking questions, she said she felt a sense that “finally” the locals might do something about the cat mystery.

A group of Oxford residents hope their neighbours will come forward with information about why their cats are missing. From left, Lisa Watson, Liam Burwell, Mary Ireland, Dean Burwell, Phaedra Burwell, and Maria Lowe.

JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/Stuff

A group of Oxford residents hope their neighbours will come forward with information about why their cats are missing. From left, Lisa Watson, Liam Burwell, Mary Ireland, Dean Burwell, Phaedra Burwell, and Maria Lowe.

“We want whoever is behind this to know we’ve had enough, it’s not right,” Burwell said.

A group of them was now working together, with plans to populate a map with the last known location of each missing cat.

They had a few leads on the location of a gin trap, but before pointing fingers they wanted to see what the data might tell them.

Although a number of locals were reluctant to get involved, Burwell, Watson and Lowe hoped they could see the power of numbers.

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