Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: A better option than gunning for the family moggy

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Image / BROMHEAD
Image / BROMHEAD

Economists make such a botch-up of running economies that it seems odd the nation is hanging on economist Gareth Morgan's every word as he gets all misty-eyed about restoring New Zealand's bird life to its pre-human glory.

Last time I looked, he'd upped the odds in his "Cats to Go"campaign, offering the SPCA a bounty of $5 for every unwanted cat it killed. Predictably, SPCA boss Bob Kerridge was spluttering apoplectically.

Forget the silly season. This is totally bonkers.

Dr Morgan has a hankering to wake up to a chorus of bell-birds and tui and twittering fantails. In his mind, ridding the land of cats will usher in this paradise, or nightmare, depending on one's tolerance for bird droppings and avian babble.

He hasn't made it clear how purist his vision is. Does he want to massacre the immigrant sparrows and goldfinches and thrushes as well as part of turning the clock back to pre-human, or pre-European times.

That would place that other human companion animal, the dog, on death row as well. Which might be no bad thing given its propensity for attacking its human hosts when not having deadly sport with kiwi, weka, assorted parrots and other slowcoach ground dwellers.

Then there are the unexpected consequences that have afflicted previous attempts to play God with animals. In the 1880s, ferrets and stoats and weasels were released to kill the rabbits that had been released as sport and bred like ... well, rabbits, at ruinous speed.

Contrary to plan, the mustelids stepped foot on this tropical paradise, took one glance at the intimidating big-footed rabbits, and decided fresh bird eggs and chicks were a much tastier - and less strenuous - diet.

They disappeared into the bush and have created mayhem with the bird life ever since.

Cats, which arrived with Captain Cook as onboard rat-catchers, were also tested as rabbit-catchers, but they also preferred rats, mice and birds.

Dr Morgan now wants to extract the cat from this messy and complicated equation.

No one doubts that kitty's menu includes a wide range of his feathered friends. But cats are also a major exterminator of rats and mice, which are also partial to eggs and birds. Removing cats could lead to a population explosion of rats and mice, which won't help bird or man.

The volunteers of Ark in the Park, the 2300ha sanctuary for native bird life in the Waitakere Ranges, appreciate the complexity of restoring lost wild life. After 10 years of laborious pest control, they're now contemplating the reintroduction of kiwi within a few years.

Between 1976 and 1986, several failed attempts were made by the Auckland Regional Authority and volunteers to reintroduce weka, North Island brown kiwi and red-crowned parakeet in the ranges.

In 1990, ecologist B.W. MacMillan concluded that the attempts had apparently failed. He didn't identify a cause of death for the kiwi, apart from the release area being too small.

He wrote that "residents' dogs and other predators near the release site at Huia probably killed most of the weka ... [while] cats and ground predators ... probably took many of the red-crowned parakeets."

Ark in the Park is trying to avoid these pitfalls, with a large territory, a comprehensive pest control programme and buy-in from neighbours. The reward has been an increase in native bird numbers, including reintroduced kokako and North Island robins. Now they're talking of kiwi.

The Companion Animal Council claims New Zealand has 1.4 million pet cats, about twice the number of pet dogs. As I discovered last year, suggesting stricter controls over either triggers the sort of hysteria President Obama sparked when he called for tighter gun regulations.

Yet in Australia, companion animal controls are much stronger than ours. In Queensland and New South Wales, for example, cats and dogs have to be registered, and identification chips implanted. The fee for desexed animals is a fraction of the price for entire animals.

It seems a good first step in dissuading cat - and dog - ownership. Rather more likely to succeed than lining moggies up against the wall for $5 a shot.

Meanwhile, Dr Morgan might like to fund free trips for Aucklanders out to the pest-free bird sanctuaries popping up in the Hauraki Gulf. It might be enough to persuade us of the merits of a cat-free environment.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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