Should New Zealand Wage War on Cats?
New Zealand is a cat-friendly country according to a 2011 survey by the New Zealand Companion Animal Council, which found that 48 percent of its households has at least one feline. It’s all the more unsettling to hear about economist Gareth Morgan’s Cats To Go campaign. In the name of protecting New Zealand’s native birds (some of whom, like the kiwi, are flightless), Morgan is exhorting his fellow citizens to make their current “killer kitty” their last one.
Doing so, Morgan argues, will result in a “pest free” New Zealand “teeming with native wildlife, penguins on the beach, Kiwis roaming about in your garden,” with birdsong heard in the cities. Indeed, Morgan argues that eradicating New Zealand’s cat population is crucial to preserving the country as a “premium clean, green tourism” destination.
Morgan does not call for euthanizing cats, though he does say that such is an “option.” Aside from urging people not to “replace” cats, he wants them to be belled and kept inside “from now on.” New Zealanders are requested to sign a petition to register all cats with the government and have microchips implanted in them.
Cat lovers in New Zealand have been telling Morgan to, in the words of Bob Kerridge, president of the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, “butt out of our lives” and not to “deprive us of the beautiful companionship that a cat can provide individually and as a family.”
Morgan’s is, well, one approach to addressing the issue of non-native species. Via his personal blog, he is running another campaign to raise $1 million to rid the remote Antipodes Islands of mice as the rodents are the only predators there.
To back up his Cats To Go campaign, Morgan cites a number of research studies about the ill effects of cats on New Zealand’s native species. Scientists in New Zealand have been responding. Dr Yolanda van Heezik, a Senior Lecturer in Zoology at the University of Otago, points out that “feral cats are known to be a problem” but the situation with pet cats is less clear. She points out that cats do prey on rats and keep that population down, and says that Morgan’s recommendations (including making the current cat one’s last) are “reasonable.”
Wildlife ecologist John Innes of Landcare Research looks at some of the research that Morgan has cited as evidence for why New Zealand must be made “predator free.” One study, notes Innes, is actually “a worldwide study of islands and not just New Zealand.” Cats “alone cannot be blamed for the loss of any species”; other animals including hedgehogs, ferrets and stoats must be considered along with the species who has “four wheel drive vehicles” and fishes — human beings.
While noting that it would be best to keep them indoors at night, Innes also points out that “the research to clarify whether the negative effects of cats on these fauna outweighs the positive effects of their predation on ship rats, Norway rats and mice has not been done.” Cats, says Innes, also prey on “small mammals, birds, lizards and invertebrates” and, in fact, are actually “not significant predators of any” of the species (kaka, kokako, mohua, t’eke and robins) that Morgan mentions on his website, except for one, the weka.
To single out cats as solely responsible for the loss of native wildlife in New Zealand is at best unclear from available evidence. Morgan’s claims may be well-meant to preserve the unique wildlife of his country, but they are misleading and his use of research to buttress his points requires at least a second and third look. There are less drastic solutions (such as belling cats) available than eliminating cats altogether — indeed, such a policy could be folly and create other problems, including an increase in other non-native predators such as rodents that also prey on native birds.
A war on cats isn’t necessary. But thoughtful dialogue about how to help all species co-exist is much needed.
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