A new campaign led by businessman and philanthropist Gareth Morgan aims to convince New Zealanders of the dangers posed to native wildlife by pet cats.
Mr Morgan argues that at the very least cat ownership should become as strictly regulated as dog ownership, and that eventually cats should be phased out altogether from our shores.
“My request to every cat owner is to make this cat your last,” he told Campbell Live.
The webpage detailing Mr Morgan’s campaign – Cats To Go – challenges cat owners to change the way they think about their beloved pets.
“That little ball of fluff you own is a natural born killer,” it says. “The fact is that cats have to go if we really care about our environment.”
Mr Morgan’s claims have riled up animal groups including the SPCA.
“Butt out of our lives,” says SPCA executive director Bob Kerridge, “don’t deprive us of the beautiful relationship that a cat can provide individually and as a family”.
The SPCA does not dispute the fact that cats can and do kill native species, only Mr Morgan’s claim that this necessitates the goal of a cat-free New Zealand.
However, for one pest eradication researcher at least, it’s uncertain whether getting rid of New Zealand’s favourite pet would have the desired result even if Mr Morgan’s campaign found public support.
Landcare Research wildlife ecologist John Innes has some 30 years of research experience, and has been involved in major recovery programs for native birds including kokako and tui.
Mr Innes says there is “substantial uncertainty” over whether taking cats out of the equation would be better for our native species, because cats also play a role in keeping other introduced predators, like rat species, at bay.
“You can’t just say that cats are bad because they kill birds, it’s simply not that simple,” he says.
“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.
“I’m not saying that [cats] are good for birds, but it’s not a stupid suggestion.”
Mr Innes says past research would caution against interfering with one part of an ecosystem without considering others, and that removing cats would have to be considered alongside ongoing efforts to curb other pests.
Current pest eradication efforts typically target possums, rats and stoats. While Mr Innes says the view that all cats should be considered pests is “not at all” unheard of in conservation circles, cats still tend to stay off the list.
“Cats are not on that list because of the political backlash from including them, which is what Gareth is wading into.”
But for all the unknowns, there is one slightly controversial recommendation that Mr Innes seems sure of.
“There is uncertainty about whether the good stuff that cats do outweighs the bad,” he says, “but the one thing that is known is that they do their good stuff at night, if you’re going to keep your cats in at night you’re stopping them doing anything good at all”.
That goes against the advice of the Department of Conservation and the Auckland cat rescue and re-homing service Lonely Miaow, which both advocate keeping cats indoors at night.
‘Every cat should be an owned cat” – Lonely Miaow
Like the SPCA, Lonely Miaow acknowledges that cats sometimes kill native wildlife, while arguing that the future of New Zealand’s domestic cats should not be in question.
“We would never say to anybody, ‘look you must have a cat’ or ‘don’t have a cat,’ but we would say you must have responsible ownership,” says treasurer Peter Dormon. “For whatever reason ... [cats] decided to live with us and we’ve decided to live with them, so every cat should be an owned cat.”
Mr Dormon says instead of targeting house cats – which he says should be de-sexed and micro-chipped – the emphasis should be on dealing with feral cats and strays.
“The feral cats – we would agree with Gareth that they should all go, and I’m sure DoC agree with us and I believe most people would agree with it as long as they are killed humanely,” he says.
Lonely Miaow distinguishes between feral cats, and the stray or abandoned cats which it tries to find homes for.
Mr Dormon believes a recent estimate, which put the number of stray adult cats in the greater Auckland area at 200,000, was conservative. And whatever the real figure is, he says it can grow very fast.
“If there’s 100,000 females, then that’s one million kittens every year, so it does need a big campaign.”
He says a concerted effort to trap, de-sex and re-home as many strays as possible is needed, and invites Mr Morgan to support the cause.