Ban cats? Please get real

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.

That 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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