Opinion: Cats and the law

CLAWS OUT: Gareth Morgan wants action against cats.
CLAWS OUT: Gareth Morgan wants action against cats.

Residents of the City could have easily predicted the public scorn for media-personality Gareth Morgan's proposed eradication of the country's cats.

It was just under two years ago that one City Councillor's proposal to reduce cat ownership in the City met a similarly frosty reception from the cat-loving public - and that involved the much more sensible suggestion of limiting cats to one per 500m2 property.

It's hard to take Dr Morgan too seriously here. His website claims to advocate for a voluntary, rather than forced, extermination of felis catus. Of course, in a country of 1.4 million pet cats, the only plausible way to eradicate them would be through a strictly enforced legal ban. As Kant noted, he who wills the ends must will the means.

It is hard to see such a law being enacted so long as our democratic constitution remains in place. That's not to say things can't change, of course. Our relationship with cats, and their relationship with our laws, have taken many interesting twists turns over the years.

Cats were famously sacrosanct in ancient Egypt - and killing one was a capital offence.  Westerners did not quite take things to that level, but the evidence is that cats were highly prized for their granary guarding prowess. Howell the Good - the 10th Century "King of the Britons" introduced numerous laws setting out protections for cats and cat ownership.

But cats' privileged position crumbled when in the 13th Century, for a number of reasons, they came to be seen as minions of Lucifer and became particularly associated with witchery. Their famously independent temperament did not help in this regard - it was seen as a violation of Genesis's injunction that man had dominion over beasts.

And so a popular medieval persecution against cats ensued. By the mid-1300s, cats had nearly been eradicated from Europe. Gareth Morgan may well have approved -  after all, cats were also an introduced species to the European continent too.

Of course, fewer cats meant more rodents. In those days, rodents meant one thing more than anything else - the plague. Europe's great cat persecutions are thought today to have been a cause of the devastating pandemic we call the Black Death, which reduced Europe's population by as much as 60% between 1348 and 1350.

From that low-point, cats made uneven progress in rehabilitating their reputation. The 16th century, for example, was not a good time to be a cat with a resurgent witch-scare leading to legislation that included the assumption that cat-keeping was a sign of witchery. 

During the 17th Century's Great Plague of London (the last significant plague epidemic in England) cats were actually blamed for spreading the disease. The city government then had cats eradicated. The length of the epidemic was prolonged accordingly.

The modern common law, however, regards cats as "mansuetae naturae" - or not naturally dangerous to humans. As such, a pet owner is not generally liable for the actions of his or her cat unless they are aware that it has a "mischievous propensity". In this respect, cats seem to have it better than dogs - who must be closely controlled by their owners under the Dog Control Act 1996.

So it would seem that cats have been returned to respectability - even if they have not re-attained the heights of deification. But if cats can sleep easy for now, we have seen that they should not be complacent. History shows that we will turn on cats fast enough.

  • Liam Hehir is a solicitor at Fitzherbert Rowe Lawyers. The opinions expressed are his own. He owns two cats.

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