Milo, the feral cat-detecting dog, is retiring after eight years in the bush. Kim Knight meets her at home in Paihia and reports on the conservation canines training to track everything from carnivorous snails to Kauri dieback disease.
She's the colour of a glossy chocolate pudding. Whip-thin, whip-smart. It hurts when her tail thwacks a shin. A blitz of energy that focuses, suddenly, on the photographer.
Milo, the German short-haired pointer, knows with certainty something nobody else in this sunny patch of Northland bush could: The photographer shooting this story lives with a cat.
There are 85 conservation dogs working across Aotearoa New Zealand. Around 45 have been taught to find taonga species - kiwi, whio, kākāpō and more. The remainder, like Milo, detect pests that destroy or displace native flora and fauna.
The dogs are specialists, ignoring everything except their targets. Milo is one of an elite group of just eight trained to do what you might think comes naturally to a canine - find cats.
"Everyone says that," says handler Brad Windust. "'Oh gosh, that must have been easy'. Well, all dogs can find cats but they don't all tell their owners. It's about teaching the dog to tell me."
Feral cats, rats, mice, ferrets and stoats are obvious target pests, but the conservation dog programme has a much wider reach. There are, for example, dogs that can detect insects and reptiles like the aggressive and bitey Argentine ant and the so-called "plague" skink, a lizard that arrived from Australia in the 1960s and reproduces at five times the rate of local species. In Invercargill, two dogs have learned to sniff out the invasive estuarine plant pest Spartina grass.
In the past decade, the size of the pest-detection dog team has tripled and the species-seeking team has doubled. Once, the hunt for tiny, critically endangered native frogs literally left no stone unturned - now there's a possibility dogs could narrow down search areas. Meanwhile, another handler is investigating the use of dogs in the search for powelliphanta, the large, air-breathing carnivorous land snails only found in New Zealand. Dogs have assisted in the fight against kauri dieback disease and, as far back as the 1890s, environmentalist Richard Henry used them to help catch and relocate 500 kiwi and kākāpō from Fiordland to Resolution Island.
Dogs are smaller and quicker than humans. They can squeeze through regenerating undergrowth; they can see with their noses, catching scent on the wind or the ground or, in Milo's case, both. On predator-free islands, when evidence of a pest emerges, dogs provide the fastest and most accurate indication of precise locations to set traps. A dog can find the proverbial needle in a haystack.
It takes up to two years to train a dog like Milo. Handlers work directly for the Department of Conservation or, like Windust, contract back to the government agency for the work that has been supported by Kiwibank since 2016 - the same year the Government announced Predator Free 2050, a pest control strategy that is as ambitious as its title suggests.
"The first few months is really just bonding," says Windust, explaining Milo's training process. "I slept with her in my bed for four weeks. And then I just took her on little adventures, just getting her to trust me. I carried her around a lot, because when you're out in the field, you've got to chuck them over gates and hold them in very scary places."
He remembers the day they sat the final certification test. "I felt like spewing. I was so worried she wouldn't pass. And she did, with flying colours."
Milo's reward? A bounce of a ball, a pat from Brad, and perhaps, a grateful public.
Conservation dogs travel to New Zealand's most precious natural places. They work on the island arks that hold the last of their kind and the fenced mainland areas where native species are regrouping and regenerating. When the Weekend Herald first contacted Windust, he was "stuck" somewhere in the Hauraki Gulf, sheltering in place after Auckland residents got nine hours' notice of their fourth Covid lockdown.
"It was the best thing ever," he grins. "I had the whole island to myself pretty much."
Milo is eight years old. In her short life, she's worked from the Far North to the sub-Antarctic Islands and east as far as the Chathams. But this month, she officially retired. Says Windust: "She deserves the couch."
The bond between man and dog is as old as cave paintings. In 2017, archaeologists working in northwestern Saudi Arabia reportedly found 8000-year-old engravings depicting leashed hunting dogs. Kurī came to Aotearoa with 13th-century Polynesian voyagers; the first dog is said to have been made by Māui who stretched his snoring brother-in-law's nose, ears and spine into a canine form. Dogs are the backbone of New Zealand's sheep farming heritage and a gazillion-dollar pet industry has deified the "pampered pooch".
Windust says he always thought he'd find Milo a nice retirement home with a new family. Now, there is no question who her family is. That couch he's promised her is plush and comfy, up a long driveway, in a tiny room full of books about the bush. The lights are solar-powered and the composting toilet (no wētā, way too many spiders) compensates for its lack of a door with possibly the best loo-view in the country. An outdoor bath overlooks the vege garden. A bit further down the boardwalk, a kitchen bench is piled with extraordinary onions each one the size of a toddler's head. Windust fills the jug for a cup of tea from a hose. It's as far from Auckland as you can imagine. And what you notice, first and most, are the birds.
The property backs onto Ōpua State Forest. When Brad and Milo (and new pup Wero) are not on contract for DoC, they volunteer with Bay Bush Action, a group that takes care of around 450ha of public and private land in and around the back of Paihia. In the past decade, volunteers have rid the area of 15,000 rats, 7500 possums, 400 stoats and weasels - and 171 feral cats.
Windust grew up in Dargaville. "I didn't see a tūī until I was at least 12," he says. He thinks he must have always had an interest in the environment, because "at school I used to sit there so grumpy because they weren't teaching me anything I wanted to know. I wanted to know about the ocean, and I wanted to know about the forest and I wanted to know practical stuff".
Eventually, he would become a beekeeper and go bush to hunt pigs, "but even then, I couldn't see the forest for the pig prints".
One day, he took a friend fishing. That friend pointed out an almost dead forest, where thousands of pōhutukawa had been decimated by possums. Windust learned that the trees try to heal browsing damage with a sugary sap that just makes them sweeter to pests.
"So I started killing possums, and then rats, and that must have been 15 or 20 years ago . . . once you see it, you can't stop - and you see it everywhere. I had to try and change it."
Scientists have identified 58 species of bird driven to extinction since the 13th-century arrival of humans to the New Zealand biological archipelago (which includes Norfolk and Macquarie islands). We are the most murderous offenders, followed by Pacific rats and feral cats. The latter, present on the mainland since at least the 1830s, are implicated in 21 extinctions including huia, the laughing owl, three different types of snipes and four rails.
"I started on this journey doing pest control in this forest," says Windust, indicating the vast sweep of trees behind his house. "I realised how little I knew about cats . . . as soon as I started putting cameras up in the bush, I just started seeing cats every night. And in all these years, I've never got a photo of one of these cats in the daytime.
"A lot of people think 'oh, wild cats - it's because people are dumping them'. And I'm sure that is a problem, but really, since the 1800s, they've been living and breeding in the wild. Since sailors brought them on their boats."
DoC makes a distinction between stray and feral cats. Neither are owned, but strays interact and sometimes depend on humans. Feral cats are truly wild. Autopsies reveal the smorgasbord they enjoy in our native bush - rats, geckos, tūī, kererū, wētā and cicadas have all been found in the stomach of a feral cat.
"I've found them eating albatross," says Windust.
The Auckland Islands are 465km south of Bluff. Their coastline is rocky, the weather consistently cool and wet. You need a DoC permit to land. In 2018, an ambitious, multi-species eradication plan aimed at making the islands area pest-free was launched.
"There are lots of cats down there," says Windust. "And they must live a pretty tough life. Every day is like a blizzard. Lots of them have missing front teeth, I think from trying to eat shellfish."
He remembers his first night, in a tent, one hand clamping Milo's snout shut, the other holding a knife.
"Because outside, there was just this massive lion roar. ROOOAARRR. And it was a sea lion. I was absolutely s****ing my daks. And then there was crashing, breaking branches . . . "
No sea lions were harmed in the making of this story. No domestic cats, either. Windust and Milo are contracted to find evidence of feral cats - a separate team traps and dispatches. Windust says so-called "kill" traps are deployed only deep in the bush. Closer to town, live traps ensure wandering family pets can be returned home.
"Domestic cats always meow to be let out," says Windust. Wild cats? "They might hiss and spit and some of the big staunch ones will just sit there and eyeball you."
The biggest feral cat Windust has caught weighed 5.5kg and was found to have a whole tūī in its stomach. DoC's website reports its heaviest catch in the South Island high country was a 7kg male. But, last year, a Canterbury hunter shot an 11kg animal. DNA tests revealed a bog-standard feral feline and not a tiger, mountain lion or black panther as per the persistent, decades-long theories around the South Island's so-called "giant cats".
Windust fears a future where feral cats are too big to be caught in traditional traps and powerful enough to jump predator fencing. The introduction of larger domestic cat species like the Bengal, which traces its bloodlines back to the Asian Leopard Cat, concerns him. It is banned in some parts of the world and New Zealand importers must prove five generations of domestic ancestry. In Southland, authorities have classified Bengals as an "exclusion pest", ruling that while they can be owned as pets, owners must be approved and registered.
"While there is no direct evidence that Bengal cats or other hybrid cats have become wildlife predators in New Zealand, their strong hunting traits, their size and intelligence suggests that they could become so if allowed," says Environment Southland's Regional Pest Management Strategy.
Windust describes domestic cats as "beautiful animals" and affectionate pets. But he wants them to be microchipped and neutered and for owners to contain them on their properties. And then he says something really surprising: "Milo is scared of cats. I'm not joking. She's intelligent!"
There was a moment when Windust thought he'd have to pull Milo from the conservation dog programme. She was still in training when she spied a cat, yelped and promptly ran all the way home. A mentor reassured him "don't do that - we don't want the dogs to attack cats, you just want them to indicate, to tell you the cat's there. That's your job".
Windust describes Milo as "my best mate". He's recently become vegan, but she gets bones, biscuits and bacon ("free-range of course"). She wears a raincoat when it's wet and he's fairly certain he's not the only handler who occasionally lets her sleep inside when they're on a job. The best part? Islands like Tiritiri Matangi, where you can see Auckland city, but the birdsong sounds like the dawn of time. On those islands, says Windust, half the job is explaining to people why he and Milo are even there.
"I do get lonely sometimes, like working on the Chathams, I was up in the dark, driving for miles to the most beautiful beaches in the world and there's not a person in sight and you walk all day, and then you get home and crash and you do the same thing for weeks. There's no internet, no phones, just you and the dog."
Conservation dog handlers develop a grudging respect for their target species. Consider the story of the feral cats on Great Barrier Island, caught on camera, lolling in the sun right next to the baited traps intended to catch them. Or the domestic cat that survived three full months on Urupukapuka Island, about 7km offshore from Paihia.
"So this is how cats get to islands," says Windust. "There was a sailor who anchored out from that island and he woke up in the morning and his boat cat was gone and he just thought that it could never have swum that far and must have drowned and went home and didn't tell anyone.
"Contrary to popular belief, cats are excellent swimmers and at night-time, they come alive. It spent three months on that island, eating only native wildlife until it came into one of the caretaker's rooms, because it got its arm caught under its collar and that's how they found its owners."
Stowaways and escapees are major risks to New Zealand's pest-free islands. After the recent America's Cup challenge, seven dog handlers spent four days on Rangitoto and Motutapu, checking no unwanted rats and mice had made it ashore via the huge spectator fleet (no rodents were detected).
Fin Buchanan, DoC senior adviser, pest-detection dogs, remembers the day back in 2011, when he and his rodent-detecting dog Pai (short for "ka pai kurī") were searching a barge bound for Hauraki Gulf's Motuihe Island.
"Pai went nuts around the van. We searched it inside and out, and couldn't find anything, but the dog was determined something was there. So we got the van off the barge and then we really stripped it down. And, sure enough, hidden in the engine bay, was a very live rat . . . that doesn't happen very often, but, man, you're very proud of your dog when it does."
Motuihe is home to tuatara, saddleback, takahē and little spotted kiwi. Volunteers have spent years replanting hundreds of thousands of trees.
"There is a classic report of a cat turning up there," Buchanan relates. "The island rangers had been trying to catch it, but it was a cunning thing. Brad was deployed to do that job and I think he was barely there for an hour and a half when he'd located it. The DoC boat hadn't even left the island yet!"
You want to find a pest, says Buchanan, because that means your dog is doing its job, "but you're also kind of hoping you don't". The challenge is to keep the detectives interested. Buchanan's partner, who is also a rodent dog handler, travelled to the Antipodes Islands with freeze-dried dead mice that her colleagues would periodically hide, so her dog remained keen for a "find".
Back in Paihia, on the floor of Windust's ute, there's a small plastic bag containing the dried cat poo he uses for training. Milo might be retiring, but his new dog Wero ("the hero!") is a quick study, who can detect both cats and stoats. Milo's muzzle will be passed on and her high-vis jacket and GPS tracking collar hung up for good. But in the field, Windust will see constant reminders of the work that Milo and other conservation dogs have done.
"I'm just so lucky, because I get to go to these offshore islands that often no one else is allowed to go to. And they're pest-free and the life is just exploding. I walk with, yeah, with a spring in my step.
"There are just hundreds of thousands of seabirds at night, just swirling around and crashing to the forest. One of the first islands I went to, I remember walking to the dunny at night and I counted 48 great big forest geckos, and the beaches are just covered in footprints. Penguins and all sorts of seabirds and tuatara drag marks. It's incredible."