Gareth Morgan, who could spring a surprise at this year's election, has never been afraid to offer up ideas that will meet widespread scorn initially, but improve with time. So it may for his suggested regulation of domestic cats. The idea has found support from enough city and district councils for a remit to pass, narrowly, at this week's Local Government NZ conference, calling for national legislation on cats.
It means the organisation will press the Government to implement an already agreed National Cat Management Strategy which values both cats as human companions and indigenous birds and other wildlife. Balancing these two interests could mean the compulsory registration of cats and requirements for microchipping, castration and curfews. At the very least, there could be a limit on the number a household can keep, and every cat might have to wear a bell to warn the birds.
Morgan's party may be the only one that dares take a cat control policy to this election, even the Greens seem content for him to take the lead on it. But whatever the stripe of the next government, it may not be able to avoid a decision on this one. National has adopted a bold, predator-free 2050 eradication programme that does not yet have domestic cats in its sights but will have to include them if it is to be credible.
There is not much point trying to poison all possums, stoats, rats and feral cats if their cuddly domestic cousins are left free to slip out of the house and take a nocturnal prowl for prey.
Feral cats are usually pets that have been abandoned, neglected or escaped. It is hard to see how the predator-free project can include feral cats without compulsory microchipping of all cats. Would that be so bad?
Cats and dogs make quite different pets. Dogs are more needy, obedient, easily trained and confined and if need be can be tethered. Cats are more independent. They can be responsive companions when they feel like it but they are just as content with their own company. And they are normally indifferent to commands. Yet while responsible dog owners readily accept registration and other social obligations, cat lovers hiss at the very suggestion.
They are not called cat owners usually, to have a cat is not to feel like you "own" it. The animal has chosen to make your home its own as long as you feed it. It reserves the right to range. It is possibly this admirable independence that accounts for their human admirers' fierce objections to registering and controlling their movements. The libertarian Taxpayers Union was the first group to condemn the Local Government NZ resolution this week.
But there is no denying cats are contributing to the diminished birdlife these days in the bush and urban parks of New Zealand. To take a trip to one of the cat-free islands where the Department of Conservation has eradicated rats and stoats is to realise that without those beautiful, throaty calls of our native birds, our magnificent natural rainforest is missing something vital.
It is sad that almost the only place most Kiwis hear this country's native birdsong is when they walk past a recording of it, in a museum or Auckland Airport's international arrival hall. It should be everywhere, and with a concerted effort it could be. Cat lovers should listen.