Heading towards catastrophe

February 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

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The economist and philanthropist, Gareth Morgan, is right. There are simply too many cats in New Zealand for the native bird population to prosper. The concentration of cats in our cities is completely at odds with an idealised view many New Zealanders have of their country as one that is clean, green and natural.

Morgan has started a campaign to make New Zealanders think again about being a cat owner. His website Cats to Go sets out the arguments as to why cats are menace to native fauna – not just birds, but skink, gecko, frog and insect species.

In 2011, New Zealanders owned 1.4 million cats and that number corresponded to one in two households owning at least one cat. On his website, Morgan quotes studies that show cats have contributed to the extinction of nine native bird species and raised the risk of losing another 33 native birds.

But for suggesting that people should think again about being a cat owner, Morgan has become a lightning rod for cat lovers, many of whom are in denial that their little Tiddles is a pathological killer of native wildlife.

It’s interesting that some of the reaction has come from people who seem to be in complete denial that their cat is a top of the food chain alpha predator because, apart from dogs, cats have no natural enemies in New Zealand.

One of the arguments used by the cat protection lobby is that cats also control rodents but as this science blog post points out, with fewer cats, we humans would simply raise own game to keep the numbers of rats and mice down, as we already do with possums and stoats.

Morgan’s position has also been subject to a number of distortions, some funny memes, Facebook pages like this one and this one.  But he never advocated for the destruction of pet cats but makes a case for destroying feral cats – as we already do to rabbits and possums – because he argues that the trap, neuter and release (TNR) programme employed is not effective in preventing the carnage caused by cats.

The science is unequivocal. As this study shows – and this one and this one – cats are responsible for an enormous slaughter of small birds and animals. The danger is that cats are killing off the native birds at rates that are higher than they can replenish their populations or even grow their numbers.

If Morgan’s campaign gets people thinking about whether they will replace their ageing moggy when it finally passes on and hangs up its claws or to choose to have only one cat, that’s got to be more compatible with efforts being made by the Department of Conservation, local authorities and dedicated individuals who are working to protect New Zealand’s natural wildlife.

For the record, I feel it is necessary to mention that our household has a cat. She is lethal to the local rat and mice population. But she has brought home the occasional silvereye, weta and skink. I’ve come around to the pleasure of native birds because our home in Wellington’s Aro Valley has become a drop in centre for these guys.  That these three kaka or native New Zealand bush parrots are in our neighbourhood is tribute to the work done by the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary.

Zealandia provides a safe, predator proof environment for native birds – a kind of fenced land ark which is repopulating the surrounding Wellington suburbs with birds that filled the pre-1840s tree lined natural landscape.  The kaka, tui, morepork that are seen and heard on a daily basis in our immediate neighbourhood have only been made possible because they are able to breed in complete safety from cats and other predators within Zealandia’s fortified 225 hectare valley.

As Morgan’s Cats To Go website puts it:

Imagine a New Zealand teeming with native wildlife, penguins on the beach, Kiwis roaming about in your garden. Imagine hearing birdsong in our cities. Sure, we are seeing more tui and kereru these days, thanks to some good work on rat and possum control in some areas. But many other species are still endangered; such as the cheeky kaka, beautiful kokako and curious weka. These birds once ruled this land. Some species can’t coexist with cats and rats at all, such as mohua, saddleback and robins, so they rely on a few pest free refuges for their survival.

The call to reduce cat numbers in New Zealand has caught the eye of a number of international media outlets, including The Guardian, The New York Times, The Telegraph, The Atlantic and online websites like Russia Today and Boing Boing. While Morgan is described as a cat hater by Boing Boing, none of the others beats this indecent, over-the-top report from Taiwan’s tabloid NMA animation studio video. Enjoy but remember this is a bizarre and entertaining distortion and not an accurate reflection of the arguments.

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