Ban cats? Please get real

Last updated 08:00 27/01/2011

Hardly a week goes by without someone leaving dramatic comments on this blog to the effect that "cats should be exterminated" or "dogs should be banned". The reasoning usually has to do with protecting native species, especially birds. I understand that reasoning. I just wish that the banners and exterminators would get real.

Now, there's nothing unrealistic about saying that dogs and cats can be a menace to native species. One loose dog in a North Island forest in the 1980s killed most of the kiwi living there. One lighthouse-keeper's cat is said to have driven the Stephens Island Wren to extinction.

Jack in the gardenThat wren, like so many other species in New Zealand, had evolved for hundreds of thousands of years in a predator-free land: native birds could safely perch without flying, nest low and move slowly, because no rats, dogs or snakes were around.

And no people were around, either. Until 800 years ago, when they arrived and started burning and cutting down forest, catching birds for food and feathers, and freeing dogs and rats into a world of easy prey. Later came Europeans, who ratcheted up the destruction of forest and, bizarrely in retrospect, introducing European bird species and others such as hedgehog and possum. The Europeans also wanted their traditional pets: cats and dogs.

Now, New Zealand has a higher rate of cat ownership than any country in the world: half of all homes have at least one. And three out of 10 households has a dog.

This is one place where reality has to touch the pets vs native birds debate. Having pets has deep roots in the way we live. It's a big part of our culture. At a personal level, banning cats or dogs would have an impact on a par with alcohol prohibition or ending the use of private cars: all would have good effects, all would make the various cause-absolutists walk a little taller, and all would be hideously destructive of freedoms while introducing massive costs and problems in enforcement.

Prohibitions of this kind don't work. Policymakers, as far as I can tell, aren't interested in such ideas because they know they don't work. But those of you who still say "ban them", fine, just could you explain a credible way that might happen, and perhaps give a time frame? Once you start getting real on this, then you'll see that blanket banning has no future.

And let's also be real about the scale of threat, neither minimising nor overplaying it. Domestic pets roaming free in an area where native species are endangered are a menace; those in, perhaps, a typical urban area much less so, especially if rules on dog control are followed. So let's write our rules with reference to geography.

Some district councils include "wildlife-friendly concepts" in their plans. Housing developments in sensitive areas can place covenants on properties to say "no cats" or "no dogs" - so home buyers know in advance what the rule is. It won't stop cats from wandering in from other suburbs, of course.

What about controls on cat behaviour, the way dog owners are forced to control their dogs' behaviour through registration, chipping, fencing, muzzling and so on?

When I grew up, nobody had their dog on a leash. Dogs roamed anywhere, pooped anywhere, and bit whom they chose. Things are a lot different now because of not only rule changes, but also greater understanding on the part of most dog owners. The great majority of owners buy in to the rules and conventions, because they know and support the reasons: public safety and health.

Cats are a more challenging issue: the sell will be harder. Cats aren't a physical danger to people in the way uncontrolled dogs can be. Cats aren't as susceptible to training.

(I know some people say you can train a cat, but cats, unlike dogs, haven't been bred over centuries for trainability. Dog behaviourists and trainers are today everywhere, but cat training is an untouched mystery by comparison. Me, I'm not going to start thinking that cats are the same as dogs simply because they ought to be.)

But cat owners know what their cats can do. A cat can kill scores or hundreds of birds a year. Some of these will be native. Cats are not responsible for latter day extinctions - we humans can take the blame for that - but they can still cause harm among frail bird populations.

But cats also kill rats and mice, which is all good for the native birds. A Department of Conservation ecologist, John Flux, studied his own cat's toll in Lower Hutt across 17 years: 223 birds, of which only 11 were endangered native species; 221 mice, 63 rats, 35 rabbits, and a few hares and weasels.

I wouldn't want to misrepresent Flux's conclusions but it all suggests to me that the problem of cats vs native wildlife is a many-sided one, and unlikely to be solved by big, dramatic, absolutist attempts at solution.

A big part of this, I believe, is owner responsibility. Know your cat, know your area. Does your cat hunt birds? Do you live where native birds or animals are around? Then look at ways of keeping your cat away from those creatures, and one promising way is by putting a bell collar on it. I'm realistic about this: cats can still hunt and kill even with a bell tinkling. But a recent Otago study seemed to show a halving of birds killed when cats are bell-collared.

Other parts of owner responsibility are neutering, avoiding breeding, never abandoning cats to become feral, and even not getting a cat if you live within five kilometres of an area where native wildlife are struggling to survive.

But I'm not an enthusiast for banning or exterminating cats or dogs. They're too much a part of our life. It's not fair, and it's not going to happen. The main problem has been, and remains, humans.

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Flossie   #1   08:15 am Jan 27 2011

I couldn't agree more Nick.. nicely written!

Hanna   #2   08:39 am Jan 27 2011

Well said. I don't think getting rid of cats will solve the problem, it will just create a whole bunch more problems.

I met a guy once who hates cats and says we should get rid of all of them, all because his mother somehow got sick and almost died due to cats excreting on her property... I'm not sure of the details or how that worked - some sort of poisoning from cat faeces (?), I kind of tuned out a bit cos I'm a cat lover and nothing he could say would change my opinion about that.

But some people have some weird/out-there reasons for wanting to get rid of cats!!!

Personally, I love my three cats, nothing would ever make me get rid of them, even if I had to hide them from a ban (should that ever happen)in a secret part of my house like Anne Frank hiding from the Nazis.

n   #3   08:44 am Jan 27 2011

The only thing our wee cat catches is mice! I just wish she'd stop bringing them inside live for 'show n tell'.. the dogs however loovveee show n tell. Always makes for a noisy/frantic 10mins as said rodent is either caught and released or caught and killed. I get very sick of self-rightous humans pointing the finger at other species. The biggest pest on the planet is humans - so what are they going to do about that? ;p

Jo   #4   09:12 am Jan 27 2011

I completely agree with you Nick, well written.

Caz   #5   09:27 am Jan 27 2011

A really good piece. We know that our cat is a hunter so do everything we can to minimise it. She has a noisy coller and we go so far as to lock her in at night. Because of her hunting but we also don't want her running around the streets getting hurt. She seems happy enough about this, coming in herself at twilight and hopping on her stand to let us know she is in (because she gets her kitty treats in reward). I guess we've 'trained' her to do this.

El Jorge   #6   09:29 am Jan 27 2011

Sure, people should be allowed to keep cats..........just as soon as they can control them and keep them on their own properties!! I for one am sick of finding neighbours cats s***ing in my vege garden. It horrifies me to think about the bugs in cat excrement that work their way into my produce. God bless the super-soaker!!!

Natasha   #7   09:31 am Jan 27 2011

I could never get rid of my cats, they are part of the family I would hide them to if there was a ban. They catch birds, mice and cicaders lol hate it when they bring it inside to show but what can ya do.

Phil   #8   09:42 am Jan 27 2011

If you want to see what can happen when drastic pest control approaches go awry then google Macquarie Island. After removing all the feral cats on the island the rabbit population soared and nearly half of the island's vegetation was wiped out resulting in costs of millions of dollars. I also remember seeing something about another island where the cat population was removed and they had to call in the army to deal with the resulting boom in rat numbers!

Fiona   #9   09:46 am Jan 27 2011

@Hanna I would totally join you in the Ann Frank style hiding!

@n I also wish my kitties wouldn't bring their prizes home but at least I can monitor what they're catching....

I have 3 cats and they do hunt but usually it's twigs, leaves, bread someone has left out for the birds, someone's dinner stolen from the bench or BBQ and the occasional mouse or *shudder* giganic rat. They have been known to bring birds home (starlings, blackbirds & sparrows) but I try to shut them in at night to minimise the hunting, and they are also inside while I am at work so their opportunities are limited.

If my kitties ever did develop a habit of hunting natives I would seriously consider making them indoor only but luckily this hasn't been an issue so far.

Billie   #10   09:50 am Jan 27 2011

Banning any sort of pet isn't going to help, but perhaps implementing laws like having to keep your cat inside at night like they do in some places in Australia (that's when they are out fighting, getting expensive to fix cat bite abscesses and spreading FIV anyway), compulsory microchipping, catch and euthanize strays and if you live near a place with wildlife, you can follow in the steps of some places in England and get a cat, but not let it roam outside... people build secure outside yards for their cats which they can access through a cat door, with bushes and trees and sunning spots and things to scratch, but they don't be able to kill native birds. I know someone with a yard for their cat like this, and it doesn't stop the cat from catching rats and mice (the silly things wander into the cats yard very regularly!)

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