Cats are not demons

03:42, Apr 21 2010

My grandmother believed that if a black cat crosses your path, you'll suffer bad luck. She also warned against having a cat around if a baby was in the house - as the cat would sneak up and steal the infant's breath. Gran's beliefs weren't unusual for someone born in Victorian England: people had been demonising cats for centuries.

Literally "demonising". A 13th-century pope ruled that black cats were instruments of Satan. This set off a drive to kill cats and a brutal superstition against cats that lasts to this day.

Another pope excommunicated all cats. Heretics were accused of having rituals involving devilish cats and, ugh, kissing them. Women who kept cats were thought to be witches, and burnt; black cats were thrown on to the flames.

Did you grow up with any pet-related superstitions around? I'm sure that, throwback regions of Italy aside, people take them less seriously these days. Not many people actually believe that cats are satanic or that they bring bad luck. Of course, there are people who dislike cats, just because they do.

But a bit of "demonising" still goes on, in a different way.

Cats, and to a lesser extent dogs, get a lot of bash in our native-fauna-conscious age. I've seen many comments on Stuff, including this blog, that sound as though some people really have it in for cats. They say things like "cats are major threat to native bird population" and occasionally head off into extremism such as  "cats are pests and need to be euthanised to prevent damage to our native birds".

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Well, to say cats can threaten native bird species is true. I read in Michael King's history of New Zealand about how one single cat wiped out the flightless Stephens Island wren, delivering a bird corpse daily at the door of the lighthouse keeper who owned the cat. The threat to some other species remains, though you'd think that cats' role in killing rats would be a positive.

Cats have as little feeling for preserving native species as, well, the human beings who lived in New Zealand for most of the past 800 years, wiping out species right, left and centre, and introducing rats, dogs, possums, stoats, and European bird species to compete with the locals.

A sense of urgency about saving unique local species was pretty late in spreading, but at least we learned.

By the time we did, cats and dogs were widely owned. And they have value to us. They have rights as animals, and they're our companions. They're not to be counted for nothing in our justified desire to preserve New Zealand's unique creatures. You can't do away with pet species (though some freelance vigilante cat-or-dog-killers have given it a try).

So native bird species are valued, and pet species are valued. The interesting question is how to trade off their value fairly and humanely while bearing in mind people's rights.

Should our government ban cat ownership, to protect native birds? Or discourage it?

Or ban the breeding of cats? (Which would have to entail, at some point, coerced euthanasia.)

Or enforce the imprisoning of cats inside; that's another step I've seen supported on this blog.

Or enforce the wearing of a collar bell by all cats, so they alert birds when they're getting near.

Me, I think it would be an act of cruelty to a cat to force it to stay inside. Some cats are strict house cats by nature, but most need space - all cat owners know that. Only the most overbearing and politically suicidal government or council would ever try to make cat owners (roughly half of New Zealand's population) crack down on their pets in that way.

None of us want more native species to vanish. But removing the threat of cats, entirely, would mean removing cats, entirely. That would require jarring changes to our lives - half of us would lose our pet.

Are you ready to eliminate cats - eliminate them completely - to help bird species to survive? It's a tough question. My personal answer: no. The tradeoff - customs, attachments, animals' rights, people's rights - is too severe.

A cat-less New Zealand would be a different kind of place. It would have to have undergone quite a big cultural change. That change would have to have been gradual and taken people along with it as it happened.

If that process does happen, then I suppose it'll start with us thinking differently about our cats. Instead of companions, we'd see them as dangers. Instead of peaceful, loving creatures, we'd see them as predators.

In a sense, we'd have to start loving them less, and start hating or fearing them. Which is where we started. No thanks - I love cats, including black ones. I would never be a part of demonising them again.

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