Gareth Morgan: Killing people's pets? That's not what I said

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Critics should see it's not about the cats - it's about the birds, biodiversity, conservation and tourism.

The only way native birds know to fear a cat is by watching one of their kin get torn apart in front of their eyes. Photo / Getty Images
The only way native birds know to fear a cat is by watching one of their kin get torn apart in front of their eyes. Photo / Getty Images

After two days of frantic debate on cats in New Zealand it is worth paw-sing for a moment of reflection.

First up, the campaign has generated a certain amount of vitriol. This is to be expected - no one liked it when we first talked about reducing smoking or littering. But thanks to a misleading SPCA press release people got the idea that I wanted to "ban" or "wipe out" cats in New Zealand.

To be clear, I have never and will never advocate killing people's pets or placing outright bans. I have too much faith in the New Zealand public for that. I think that by informing people of the damage that cats can do, they will either choose to not replace their cat when it dies, or at least ensure they are responsible pet owners.

That aside, Cats to Go has been very successful in generating some excellent debate. In just two days we have had more than 40,000 people visit the site.

Eight thousand voted on the Campbell Live poll, 40 per cent in favour of not replacing their cat when it dies in order to save our native wildlife.

More than 1500 have signed our petition lobbying local governments to require registration and micro-chipping of cats and to facilitate the eradication of unregistered cats. It has generated an awful lot of chatter on social media and even went global - for a while it was the sixth most read article in the Guardian and it was even big news in the place where I am trying to hide: Shanghai.

Of course some of the debate has been pretty facile, including a surprisingly lightweight input by Brian Edwards who accused me of being a "cat racist" (should that be catist?) and wondered why I was favouring cats over native birds. Ever hear of the value of protecting biodiversity, Brian? Not only does it help nature function how it was intended to, but conservation and New Zealand's natural capital are a substantial economic opportunity.

It's not just about tourism, it's about immigration of job and income creators; the idea the late Sir Paul Callaghan raised of New Zealand being the place where "talent wants to live". Thankfully large numbers of thoughtful people have also waded into the debate. The quality of people's input seems to depend on whether they have taken the time to actually read the website to take in the facts and proposals.

But the SPCA took out the crazy cat lady award for its response. It and other commentators tried to bat off the overwhelming evidence that cats kill native wildlife as "natural". This is simply dim witted, anyone who wasn't asleep during 5th form science knows that cats are an introduced species.

There is nothing natural about them - humans have created the issue and it is up to us to fix it. Standing by and calling the resulting carnage natural is simply being bystanders to murder.

It is worth dwelling on what this means for a moment. Thanks to millennia of splendid isolation, our birds adapted to fill all the niches in the ecosystem. Some gave up flight and chose to walk around, and most of those who kept flying decided to nest close to the ground. In an evolutionary blink of an eye humans introduced cats, rats and stoats. These animals all hunt with smell, whereas our birds can barely smell at all - this is the equivalent of one being able to see in the dark and the other not.

That is not a fair fight. Finally, our native birds have no inbuilt fear of these predators. Scientists have tested how native birds respond to stuffed cats - some will even wander over and give them a peck to say hello. The only way they know to fear a cat is by watching one of their kin get torn apart in front of their eyes. The net result of all these factors make our native birds the equivalent of muesli bars lying around waiting for cats to munch on. Or even worse, to kill and discard them.

This is all okay with Bob Kerridge and his fellow travellers in the SPCA - his is a particularly distressing disinterest in New Zealand's native fauna and belies the catch-cry of the SPCA which tells us they are the "voice for animals" - yeah right. Perhaps it would be more honestly described as the Society for the Protection of Cats. On a related topic, some have raised the soft-headed notion that I shouldn't pick on cats when humans have created most problems that face us today. This is a popular line among the loony "cat rights" advocates. It overlooks the obvious point that humans have caused the cat problem. Some people seem to sincerely believe cats have a right to live and breed unhindered in a land where they are totally alien, regardless of the damage they cause. And they are trying to paint me as crazy!

Some have also criticised the campaign as not being about the "biggest issue" facing our country, or even the biggest issue facing our wildlife. This is simply a convenient way of dodging the issue. Yes the world faces other problems but why should that paralyse us from dealing with the issues, especially when the power to do something is right at our fingertips? As for other threats to our wildlife, yes, there are many. But we are doing something about all the major threats except for cats. We are managing dogs now, but not cats. People are working hard to manage and eradicate pests in many places , but this hard work is undone when those birds fly into our cities.

At the very least councils have to manage cats the same way we manage dogs - by registering, chipping and neutering them. Australia is way ahead of us: in some states they have strict laws on cats to manage this problem, and their cat population is falling as a result. No wonder, because they are actually making owners take responsibility for their moggies.

We should be ahead of the Aussies on this. I think that people should deploy cage live-traps to capture cats that stray into their back yard, box them and leave them on the doorstep of the local authority. Only this way will we force councils to wake up and bring the same policies in here so we can eradicate strays and unregistered cats.

Finally, many people have asked me to stump up and pay for neutering cats. Now, I am totally committed to the vision of a Predator Free New Zealand - that is why I got started on the Million Dollar Mouse campaign. But sorry, cat owners, I am not going to fork out for your personal indulgences. The owners should pay for neutering. If you can't afford it, maybe you shouldn't have a cat at all - think of all the money you will save on cat food!


Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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