The cat among the pigeons

Cats and the damage they do to our native animals have been hitting the headlines. Jay Harkness looks at why cats are such a problem and why that’s so painful to acknowledge. 

 In a move that must have triggered a thousand dinner party arguments, economist and conservationist Gareth Morgan launched a campaign in January that advocates, among other things, restricting cats to their home properties and not replacing pet cats after they die because of the damage cats do to native wildlife. 

Morgan’s campaign also encourages owners to de-sex their cats, and to put bells on their cat’s collars. 

The launch of the Cats to Go campaign was covered extensively. Media attention focussed on the anger many felt towards Morgan, for what they saw as his erroneous assertions about the destruction cats create and his intrusion on their right to keep the kind of pet they like. The 

SPCA fiercely criticised Morgan’s stand, telling him to butt out of people’s lives. 

Much of the reaction was probably sparked by Morgan’s signature inflammatory style – which also created discussion when he spoke at Forest & Bird’s Face up to the Future conference last year. Morgan’s adjunct campaign to stop the SPCA from catching, de-sexing and releasing feral cats also clashed with the views of many supporters of the SPCA.

Some hard decisions are required. In the long term it comes down to either New Zealand’s native animals or the cats – we can’t really have both. In the short term there’s a clear case for cat owners to take far more responsibility for their pet’s destructive potential.

There’s no doubting that cats make good pets. Cats have personality. They’ll usually provide at least a decade of companionship and in their younger years at least they’ll provide a lot of entertainment. 

As a result New Zealanders love cats. In urban areas, there is an average of 220 domestic cats per square kilometre. 

Even Forest & Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell – our native animals’ biggest fan – has room in his heart for a cat, Bolly, which was rescued from a roadside as a kitten. 

But Hackwell says he has no delusions about the threat cats like his pose. 

“Domestic cats, particularly when they are young, are often great hunters. We had to put a bell on ours to reduce the number of lizards and birds she kept killing. And in our forests feral cats are significant predators, after rats and stoats,” Hackwell says. 

“We know from the history books that cats have taken a terrible toll on New Zealand’s natural environment. For instance, the Stephens Island lighthouse-keeper’s cat caused the extinction of the island’s eponymous wren. 

“While many people accept that feral cats are highly destructive, they tend to say that their pet domestic cats don’t catch birds. But the research tells us that cats often don’t bring their prey home and so owners aren’t to know what their cat is getting up to. 

“Others have argued that their cats catch rats, an even more destructive predator when it comes to native animals. But there are other much more effective ways of keeping rats down around your home besides using cats,” Hackwell says.

“My cat is older now and I’m the one who catches all the rats around our section.”

Some may ask what gives humans the right to play God with other living creatures. Humans have been playing God since we first set foot on these islands. We introduced pests and predators, such as cats. Having seeded the problem, it is our unpleasant duty to rectify it. If we don’t, and leave nature to find its own balance, cats – and all our other introduced predators – will kill off many more of the animals that evolved here. 

Many Forest & Bird members are already very effectively playing God with their pest control programmes, bringing species such as kiwi and kökako back to areas where predators had previously made them locally extinct. Central and local government spend millions of dollars on pest control.

With its trap, neuter and release policy, the SPCA is undermining this community restoration work. Overseas evidence points to partially managed colonies not ever decreasing in numbers because people see them as a good place to dump unwanted animals, only adding to the threat these animals pose to our native wildlife.