A Cat Free New Zealand

Gareth Morgan a New Zealand philanthropist has called for cats to be registered, micro-chipped and for their owners to have the animals spayed/neutered and to keep their cats indoors. He also suggests not replacing a cat when it dies with another cat.

His website, Cats To Go lists the environmental impact of the domestic cat and has a petition urging Govt to do more regarding feral cat populations and updating legislation around keeping cats as pets.

He faces an uphill battle however. The site has a poll where people are asked:

There is no doubt that cats do a massive amount of damage to our wildlife. In the interest of protecting native species would you consider not replacing your cat with a new one when it dies?

Of the over 1000 responses received at the time of writing, a whopping 74% of people indicated they will indeed replace their cat with another cat.

This despite Morgan's website displaying these kinds of [referenced] facts:

Cats have contributed to the extinction of 9 native bird species.

Cats impact on 33 endangered native bird species.

One feral cat killed 102 endangered native short tail bats in a week.

Cats kill native birds. In our cities domestic cats kill native birds faster than they can possibly breed.

Around 40% of New Zealand’s native land-birds are already extinct, and of the ones remaining 37% are endangered.

In the have your say section of the site, the comments range wildly from considered argument, to the oddball and shrill so often encountered in this debate:

... MOST people get the sort of pleasure you are talking about from cats... a vast minority get to see a kiwi. Most never do. Yet you seem to think that saving the Kiwi is more important that letting cats knock around. Can you see that this is just selfishness on your part?

Ooookay then.

If you've read Garden Guests before, you'll no doubt know that I agree with the sentiments of Cats To Go. Here in Australia it's est that there are around 12 million feral cats alone [I believe this figure is on the low side].

Using this number as a benchmark, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to realise just what an impact these pests are having on native species.

Let's assume that of the 12 million feral cats roaming the continent, less than half of them kill and or consume a native animal every 24 hours. This means that at the very least, 5 MILLION NATIVE ANIMALS ARE KILLED DAILY BY CATS.

If you also factor in the millions of domestic/stray cats that also kill native animals, the figures are horrendous. In fact, try multiplying 5 million by 365 ... staggering eh?.

Feral cat with native prey [credit: ABC]

In QLD it is illegal to own or farm a rabbit. This is primarily for the protection of agriculture, NOT the protection of the environment itself.

Whatever the motivation - it does show that with enough political will, legislation can be passed restricting the 'rights' of people to keep animals - of course, not everybody is happy about this. As an aside, there is a loophole, you CAN keep a rabbit in QLD if you're a magician - who says Govts don't have a sense of humour eh?

Back to cats. Strangely, Morgan's appeal to remove and restrict the cat in N.Z has also been slammed by SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge:

“Butt out of our lives,” ... “don’t deprive us of the beautiful relationship that a cat can provide individually and as a family”.

“I love birds and I love cats and I believe in nature doing its thing – why interfere with that? I think as soon as we start to interfere with nature, we start to interfere in an area we really shouldn’t.” ^

Sadly, Bob is obviously a little confused. Eradicating pest animals is not 'interfering with nature', but rather it is a tool to be used to undo the damage caused when we bent nature over the table in the first place.

There are those though, that claim removing feral cats could do more harm than good:

“The devil’s in the detail, you see. No one’s ever actually done the numbers to see whether the number of birds that those rats would kill [if cats were not there] is bigger or less than the [current] number that the cats kill. - Landcare Research wildlife ecologist John Innes ^

Innes makes an interesting point, although I'm not entirely sure that tacitly protecting a known pest because it arbitrarily preys on other pests is a very good argument. It'd be a bit like not culling Cane Toads because they eat their fair share of noxious insects.

Morgan also makes the point that he believes ALL non-natives including rats should be targeted. However, his focus on cats has really brought the debate into peoples homes - and that has to be a good thing, surely?.

In Australia feral cats are implicated in the sharp decline of a subspecies of the red-fronted parakeet in the 1880s and its extinction by 1891. On the mainland, they are identified as a threat to:

35 species of birds
36 mammals
7 reptiles
3 amphibians

Cats have probably contributed to the extinction of many small to medium-sized mammals and ground-nesting birds in the arid zone and seriously affected bilby, mala and numbat populations.

In some instances feral cats have directly threatened the success of recovery programs for endangered species. source