Editorial: Letting demon cats out of the bag

Last updated 05:00 24/01/2013

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Economist and philanthropist Gareth Morgan is clearly no fan of cats. On the website he has created to campaign for them to be banished from New Zealand, he literally demonises the furry critters, picturing a fluffy kitten with superimposed devil horns and ominous glowing red eyes.

OPINION: According to Dr Morgan, cats are serial killers that pose an unacceptable danger to native wildlife. He says New Zealand cannot claim to take protection of the environment seriously while it allows the presence of animals that have contributed to the extinction of nine species of native birds.

Dr Morgan is correct that cats pose some threat to native birds, but he overstates the case. By far the greatest devastation has been wrought by rats, mice, possums, stoats, ferrets, weasels and, most destructive of all, humans.

The main reason for native birds being rare in most urban centres is not predation by cats, as Dr Morgan suggests, but the loss of their natural environment. The reason Wellingtonians are more likely to see tui, kereru and other native species in Zealandia and Otari-Wilton's Bush than on Lambton Quay has little to do with the presence or absence of felines.

Dr Morgan also brushes over the fact that a complete absence of cats would lead to a boom in the population of rats, which, Landcare Research scientist John Innes pointed out earlier this month, pose a far greater threat to native birds.

That is not to say Dr Morgan should not be encouraged in his efforts to limit the impact cats can have on native wildlife. In particular, he is right to question the SPCA's policy of neutering strays then releasing them.

While desexing them might ensure they cannot have kittens, it also means a cat with no home has been set free to roam. Cats without homes are cats that are not being fed. They become hunters. If nobody wants them, a more humane approach for them, and for the birds they might go after, would be to put them down. 

Certainly, nobody would leave a dog to roam in the same way.

Councils should also consider the creation of cat-free zones in new housing built on areas that border native bush, as the Wellington City Council required for a development in Kaiwharawhara a decade ago. Mr Morgan's plan to eradicate cats from Stewart Island - which is mostly a national park - also has merit.

More targeted measures like those are far more likely to win public support.Finally, all cat owners should follow Department of Conservation advice that their pets be neutered and kept well-fed. It also advises feeding them inside an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset, when birds are most active, and fitting them with bells to warn of their presence.

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Feeders, bird baths and nesting boxes should be sited at least three metres from hiding places for cats and animal-proof guards should be placed around trees where there are chicks.

Measures like those will be far more effective in limiting the threat cats pose to native birds than an impractical attempt to stop millions of Kiwis loving pets they consider part of their families.

- The Dominion Post

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