Cats are essential to our ecology

22:30, Jan 23 2013

Kind of pleased about Gareth Morgan's nonsense over domestic cats. He's restored my faith in humanity, really. For a while there he was talking so much sense, especially in regard to politics and unpaid work. Seemed he had a worthy answer for everything. To be honest, I felt a bit resentful that someone could be quite so wise. Then along came his purchase of the footballing Phoenix and, more recently, the launch of his cat-hating website.

Not that Gareth is on his own with his anti-cat sentiments. Cats have been receiving bad press for centuries. The church was so freaked out by them it used to stage burnings; a couple of popes even called for their complete eradication. Then Warner Bros got in on the act with their Loony Tunes characters, Sylvester and Tweety Bird. If it wasn't for Granny and her broom, that bad ol' puddy cat would've been eating his co-star in every episode.

Always makes me a shade nervous when people start talking about getting rid of cats. I mean, take the 1665 Black Plague and the City of London. We know now the relevant bacteria were carried by a particular flea that lived on rats. Trouble was, people thought it was the cats spreading the epidemic and the mayor ordered them destroyed. Two hundred thousand cat deaths later the rat population (and their fleas), flourished unchecked.

And viewers of the British television quiz series QI might recall contestants being asked to explain a photograph of a cat parachuting to earth. Answer (of course) was that it was a "cat drop" into Sarawak, Borneo, where local cats had been ravaged by the effect of DDT, sprayed to kill mosquitoes. Again, without the cats, rat numbers exploded, as did the risk of diseases such as typhus and sylvatic plague. Again, it was cats to the rescue.

Gareth Morgan asks us to imagine a New Zealand without cats. Am not sure that's a pretty thought. History insists they're the most sustainable and economical of all our pest eradication options and by the very nature of his complaint, Morgan testifies to their efficiency. A New Zealand without cats? There's a chance our rat population would blossom to such an extent it posed a far greater risk to Kiwi birdlife that felines ever could.

True enough, cats come with what the US military might call "collateral damage". That's a trade-off I'm prepared to accept. Acquired a little Felix the other day, as it happens, and am hoping he'll grow up to be the natural born killer that Gareth warns us about. At least, in terms of vermin and rats and mice. That a few birds might bite the dust during his lifetime is regrettable but probably worth it. For every rat he nabs, a nest of eggs is potentially saved.


If Gareth really wants to do something about protecting New Zealand's native bird population from felines he'd be better off lobbying the Government (or setting up an agency) to provide subsidies for de-sexing procedures. We can talk all we like about the need to neuter cats and prevent unwanted litters but as long as it costs about $100 per animal, many owners will struggle to raise the cash.

Successful de-sexing programmes, not eradication schemes, are the best way to manage cat (and, for that matter, dog) numbers. Get it right at that end and not only are the effects and impacts of our domestic pets minimised at the other end, the horrible numbers of unwanted kittens and puppies euthanised each year are also reduced. That's where Gareth needs to concentrate his energy. Maybe if it cost just $20 to de-sex a cat he'd have a lot less to worry about.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

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