Charles Daugherty: Thanks, Gareth, for getting our attention

Cat-lovers are missing the point - we can still have our much-loved pets, but our native birds need protection.

The domestic cat can be both affectionate pet and deadly killer. Photo / APN
The domestic cat can be both affectionate pet and deadly killer. Photo / APN

Cat-lovers have reacted to Gareth Morgan's message about cats, but it's time to think harder about the message. Dr Morgan has his facts right, and his modest proposals are in line with international trends and New Zealand law.

In less than a week, Dr Morgan's views on domestic cats have sparked worldwide attention. A quick scan of the web shows articles in The Guardian, The New York Times, Toronto Star, National Public Radio (USA), and many others.

Mostly, they report the controversy in New Zealand, where the Prime Minister called Dr Morgan's ideas "barking mad", and Brian Edwards claimed he was guilty of "animal racism". Kerre Woodham has had a go, and the president of the RSPCA told him to "butt out".

Good grief. Why such strong reactions? Has Dr Morgan got it wrong?

No, he hasn't. As a scientist and lifelong conservationist, I see no factual errors.

If anything, he understates the damage domestic cats cause.

In Britain, domestic cats were recently estimated to have killed 27 million birds in a five month period. In the continental United States, cats are estimated to kill 3.7 billion birds annually.

In New Zealand, the relative damage is greater, and not only because we have the highest proportion of cat owners of anywhere in the world. Our native species evolved for 80 million years in the absence of mammals and thus have few natural defences; they are more vulnerable to cats than species elsewhere. We know that cats have exterminated bird populations on some of our offshore island reserves, including, famously, the flightless Stephens Island wren.

Dr Morgan didn't mention costs to human health. Cats are the primary source of human infections of a protozoan parasite causing the disease toxoplasmosis. A recent study estimated that more than 160 pregnant women are infected annually in New Zealand, placing their fetuses at serious risk of neurological and other birth defects.

Some critics have said "Let nature take its course," but the presence of cats in New Zealand is not natural. Humans brought cats to New Zealand, and thus we have a responsibility to protect our native species. Instead, we are giving cats further advantages with excellent health care and regular food.

The natural controls on most wild species - disease, variable food supplies, and the struggle for existence - don't limit cat populations. Their numbers will be limited only if we act responsibly.

Other critics claim the harmful effects of cats are mitigated by their predation on rats and mice. But two wrongs - rats and cats - don't make a right. The same argument could support lack of controls on stoats and possums. In any event, council pest control programmes target rats as well as possums, stoats and cats.

What to do? At a minimum, don't shoot the messenger - listen to the message. Dr Morgan's recommendations are reasonable and humane: we need to manage cats responsibly. All cats should be registered, chipped, and neutered.

We can learn from overseas trends in cat management, some of which are more far-reaching than Dr Morgan proposes. We can modify the Conservation Act to control cats on public land in the same way that dogs are controlled.

All of us have a role to play, including me. My wife and I are caring for the cat of our neighbour while she is on an extended overseas work assignment. This cat - Gandalf - is all those things humans love about cats: affectionate, endearing, a wonderful companion. But we also know he poses risks to native birds and other species, and we've agreed that we will not replace him unless there is a way to protect nature from a successor.

I hope Gareth Morgan's critics will re-think their views. Prime Minister Key, Mr Edwards, and Ms Woodham: Please look at what's going on in your country. Spend more time in Wellington and share the enormous pleasure we residents experience as the native birds return to our gardens. Listen to the beginnings of a new dawn chorus that can be the future for the whole country, if we choose. See the benefits arising from the substantial investments of the city and regional councils in pest control. Use the power of your respected, public voices to help build a future connected more closely to nature.

Mr Edwards: Please read the Conservation Act and the Wildlife Act. Understand that what you call "animal racism" is the law of our land. Indigenous species have been given special protection for over a century. We have international obligations to do so as well.

A special plea to you, Mr Key: Please speak to your new Minister of Conservation, Mr Smith, about the support of his Nelson constituents for the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary. The Brook seeks to emulate the success of Wellington's Zealandia in bringing native birdlife back to the city. Understand that your constituents nationally are seeking a greener future, and we all have a role to play. After all, the law of the land requires your Government to advocate for conservation.

Now, let's all thank Dr Morgan. He's got our attention.

Charles Daugherty is Professor of Ecology at Victoria University of Wellington and a Trustee of Wellington's Zealandia. He has an ONZM for Services to Conservation and Biology. His garden near downtown Wellington is home to tui, kereru, and fantails, and he hears and sees kaka overhead daily.

- NZ Herald

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