Sunday, September 24, 2023

Sunday Guest Blogger: Sara E. Johnson–"Killing the Cat"


Our Sunday Guest Blogger––Sara E. Johnson 


Sara spent a year exploring wondrous New Zealand, finding everywhere she snooped a mystery that needed writing.  The experience led her to write the much-praised New Zealand based Alexa Glock Forensics Mysteries series. 


Molten Mud Murder, Sara's debut novel, was published in 2019 by Poisoned Pen Press/Soucebooks. It is the first in the series, followed by The Bones Remember, The Bone Track and–this past June–The Bone Riddle. A former reading specialist, Sara lives in Durham, North Carolina, is a graduate of Durham Citizen Police Academy, past president of Triangle Sisters in Crime, and a member of the North Carolina Writers' Network.


All of which brought Sara to write this post that has her going where few authors have dared venture before, i.e., “Killing the Cat.”


 Welcome, Sara –– Jeff




A cardinal rule of mystery and crime writing is Don't Kill The Dog. It's a deal breaker. Kill the doodle and you kill readership. There's also the Save The Cat concept. If Alexa Glock, the protagonist in my forensic mysteries, climbed a towering kauri tree to rescue Hello Kitty, you – my reader – are more likely to bond with her. (Alexa is afraid of heights, so her climbing New Zealand's largest tree isn't likely. Plus, she's clumsy.)


In New Zealand, where my mysteries are set, the Kiwis let the dogs out, but killed the cats. To be exact: two hundred and forty-three feral cats in one hunting contest.


My husband and I spent nine months in New Zealand. (We wanted to stay a year, but no-can-do on a tourist visa.) We rented a small house in Christchurch while the owners spent a sabbatical in the States. We did not mind that the house came with a cat flap and Iris, a Russian blue cat. We promised to take good care of her. We did not know that Iris, like most cats, was a prolific hunter.


One morning I stumbled through the 'lounge' (that's what Kiwis call the den)  to make coffee. Feathers coated all surfaces and a large dead bird presided on the carpet like an Agatha Christie corpse, minus knife sticking out of its breast. Iris and the bird, which obviously had been brought in alive, had gone ten rounds as we slept.


Iris expressed her love or disdain – I'm not sure which – by gifting us dead birds. She was especially generous if we left her for a weekend. Three or four dead birds, arranged by size, would be lined up in front of the washing machine (strangely in the foyer), heralding our return. It got so bad I sent my husband in first, as a scout.


Once I was vacuuming the bedroom and peeked under the bed. Big. Dead. Bird. 'A stiff,'  Alexa Glock would say. I imagine her proclaiming, 'The deceased is past the active decay state of decomposition.'


Tired of bird bouquets, we belled the cat. It helped lessen the slaughter. Attaching a bell to a cat's collar reportedly cuts the number of birds it kills in half.


Iris was bad for birds. She's not the only feline killing machine. In the U.S., cats kill a staggering 2.4 billion birds a year. In much smaller New Zealand, it's estimated that feral and domestic cats kill up to 100 million birds each year. One of the wild and wonderful facets of New Zealand is that there are no indigenous land mammals (except a fruit bat). Many of New Zealand's birds – the kiwi, kākāpō, weka – evolved flightless because there was no predator to escape from. This makes them especially vulnerable to cats and other introduced species.


Organizers of a hunting competition in a small rural village on the South Island wanted to do something about the problem. They added a feral cat killing category to their annual hunting contest and let children have a go. The hunting competition, run by volunteers, is a fundraiser for the local school and pool. Kids fourteen and younger were warned not to kill pet cats, but were encouraged to shoot as many feral cats as possible to win a monetary prize.


Children shooting cats?  What cruel plot twist is this?


One Kiwi in a Facebook posting said, 'Bloody awesome. Feral cats are a problem and should be culled.'


Another Kiwi disagreed. 'This is vile and barbaric.'


(As a mystery writer, I think the competition would be a great place to murder someone and blame it on an errant bullet. “I thought she was a cat skulking in the bushes,” the suspect claimed.)


National and international backlash to the hunting category was intense and the 14 and younger kill-the-cat category was scrapped. (The children still hunted rabbits, possums, rats, and other invasive species.) The tally for the hunt, held this past June, was 243 feral cats, 145 possums, 231 pigs, 142 deer, 128 hares, and 69 rabbits. Looking at photos of the dead cats horrified me – I can't tell a feral from a house pet – but there are an estimated 2.5 million feral cats roaming New Zealand. What do you think? Are feral cats vermin? Are they a problem in your area?


There are better solutions than a hunting competition. One method is TNR: Trap, neuter, return. PETA says trapping feral cats and adopting them or taking them to a vet or animal shelter is the kindest solution.


Domestic cat owners can help save birds in all nations by de-sexing their cats and keeping them indoors.


In my most recent Alexa Glock forensics mystery, The Bone Riddle, the president of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society is a suspect. When Alexa visits her seaside house, she is surprised to see that the bird lover has a large orange cat. The woman says, 'They kill billions of birds a year, but she's a wonderful friend and we don't let her roam.'




Thanks, Sara.


  1. Hi Sara and thanks so much for joining the blog! There is a similar situation in Bali with dogs, and I actually had a murder during the culling, then took it out so I wouldn't be cancelled. Thanks for writing about this.

  2. On the murder suggestion, at the game reserve where I have a bush place we once had someone shoot a rhino because (he said) he thought it was a warthog. A ridiculous defense we'd never dream of using in a mystery, but he got away with it. Apparently he was "legally blind"! With a hunting rifle???

  3. Since 6th April 2016, all dogs in the Uk have to be chipped by law. This year, a draft motion is going infront of parliament to make the chipping of cats compulsory. As for strays and ferals, we have very few problems. Pet cats do kill birds of course but there's an opinion that only sick/old birds would be taken by the average tabby. But then, all our birds have flight. In my next book, a kitten is in danger of being taken by a sea eagle. It's found safe and well on page 276!

  4. Hi Sara, great post, thank you--loving cats, dogs, birds and warthogs I have no idea where I stand, giving it the best kind of thought provoking relevance!

  5. From Annamaria: intensely allergic to them as I am, I have a very negative relationship with cats. I have had a fan of my books try to test me as a writer with the question, “ dogs or cats?“

    1. Annamaria continues: the response I got when I told the reader that I couldn’t have a relationship with the cat was chilly to say the least.

      In my novel, invisible country, a horse is killed in a

    2. Annamaria keeps trying: in an exchange of fire, between my heroine and the evil villain. I expected that I might get some pushback, but never arrived—I am very happy to say.

      I apologize to all for these hiccups in my response. I am trying to use the dictation app, and its latest iteration includes a tendency to publish the comment if I pause, or if I try to correct one of the dictation app’s only mistakes. I think the app is vindictive.

    3. AmA: Not being familiar with your dictation software, I can only ask: does it have commands for selecting a block of text, and copy and paste? If so, I'd recommend first writing what you want into an editor, giving you plenty of opportunity to edit silly-arse mistakes it commits in your name, and then you can copy and paste it into your comments post. Maybe? Just a thought that occurred to me as I commiserated along with you... :-)

    4. Thank you, EvKa! You right. I will try your work around, my favorite tech expert.