The conversation about cats

Last updated 08:15 18/07/2012

Dear New Zealand,

It's time we had the talk. You know the one? The one we've been putting of for aaages and aaaages because, well, because we love our pussycats in this country. We have one of the highest cat ownership rates in the world, if no the highest. Almost half of all households in New Zealand have at least one cat, and 20 per cent have more than two. There are more than a million cats in the country - with little to no regulation or monitoring on them.

Single cat kills over 100 bats

Don't get me wrong, I've been part of the problem too. From Fluffy, to Smokey, Bart and Lisa - I have grown up with cats. Cats I've loved, dearly. But as I grew up, I realised I loved other things too. The things that make New Zealand so special. And as I learned to love these new things, I learned about their plight. I learned that New Zealand is a "land of birds", with  no native terrestrial mammals except for two tiny species of bat. I learned that our birds, reptiles and invertebrates had evolved for 80 million years in the absence of mammalian hunters, and that a veritable onslaught of introduced hunters had wiped out many species of birds, reptiles, a bat - and innumberable invertebrates. (Remember the story about the single cat that destroyed over a hundred endangered bats in the space of a week?)

I know many of you have cats, love your cats and don't like it when people bring up the issue of cats and their impact on our native wildlife. I know there'll be many people who'll respond saying their cat doesn't hunt, or only hunts rodents (and yes cats do kill plenty of rodents)... But it's time we got real. I'm not saying you have to do anything, I'm simply saying let's be realistic about what having cats means for our native wildlife.

In the beginning:

Cats have been established in New Zealand for almost 200 years and right from the beginning their hunting prowess in our native bush was recorded; Cook noticed during his second voyage to Aotearoa in 1773 that the cat was often hunting in the forest. 

The most famous example of a cat sending a species to extinction was the story of the Stephens Island wren, a tiny flightless bird that scuttled about like a mouse. In 1894, the lighthouse keeper's cat Tibbles brought him one of these tiny birds. Within a year they had all disappeared - into cat bellies. From the moment of discovery to the time it took to get the bird specimen sent to London to be formally described, the Stephens Island wren was wiped off the planet. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't just down to Tibbles, but a number of cats that were ranging across the island at the time.

North Island saddleback, pied tit, tui and red-crowned parakeet were eliminated on Cuvier Island, off the Coromandel coast, mostly through predation by cats. A precious population of kakapo (including crucial females) was rediscovered on Stewart Island in 1977, free from stoats, ferrets and weasels - but easy prey to feral cats. By 1987, all remaining kakapo were evacuated off Stewart Island before they too were lost forever.

kakapo destroyed by cat (Don Merton)

This is a picture of a kakapo that's been annihilated by a cat.


Today we have a bizarre situation where people think it is their "right" to have a cat (or many, many cats) with no licensing, registration or monitoring or rules, and bugger the wildlife. People around the world would find this attitude very strange.

My Aunty in Brisbane is one of the biggest cat lovers I know, but she also loves her wildlife (and she has plenty of it! A house surrounded by trees, parrots, parakeets, butcher birds, kangaroos, even the odd python). So at her house her cats live a fantastic life indoors with a catdoor to "outside", which is a caged area. They get natural sunlight, a place to go to the toilet, but no chance to take a swipe at a passing cockatoo or other Aussie animal.

A couple of months ago, I made an offhand comment to a journalist that if you live in an area with lots of native wildlife, perhaps when your cat dies you might choose not to replace it. You would think I had committed the ultimate blasphemy! An afternoon of interviews followed, culminating in an appearance on Close Up that evening alongside a lady who was a cat lover (I think she had 10), but agreed with the suggestion that cats near wildlife areas weren't a great idea. (I suspect the Close Up producers were gutted we were in agreement since they'd been trumpeting a "cat fight" between us in all the advertising preceding the interview.)

I had cats my whole childhood, but I choose not to have another one, because I really like my birdlife around the place. On the front page of the Dominion Post this week Zealandia staff have suggested the same thing in order to protect the birds that are starting to fly out of the sanctuary and take up residence in nearby backyards. Good suggestion. If you choose to live in a place spilling over with wildlife like Zealandia in Karori, why on earth would you have a cat? I'd rather have half a dozen kaka visiting, personally.

So New Zealand, I know we love our cats, but we love our wildlife too. Can we make some changes to give our wildlife a chance to thrive? A scientist friend suggest we microchip all of our cats, meaning we could keep tabs on domestic moggies and get rid of feral cats. Is this a way forward? I want to hear your suggestions too.

Yours faithfully,

Nicola (former cat owner, still a cat-liker, but more and more a native wildlife lover)

Post a comment
Geoff   #1   08:29 am Jul 18 2012

Zealandia does not get any respect from me due to the fact they are hemorrhaging council/ratepayer money (including fighting a council decision) and just trying to use this as a deflection against that.

As for cats themselves, they are part of the ecological system. Like anything, if you remove one part, something else flourishes and/or dies. Cats are not the only predator that other wildlife has to deal with, nor are the ones you want to protect the only targets for cats. So be careful what you wish for.

Better education for cat owners to get their pets fixed is needed. Most already do, but there are still some who don't. We fostered a pregnant kitten in January who was neglected by her "owner". Once she gave birth, the 5 new kittens were found homes then fixed before they went and the mother was also fixed. So, yep, 6 cats, but they won't be having more.

I could say more but what does it matter? The sensationalists and extremists will spout their views and it'll all end up in a big slanging match as usual.

Shazza   #2   08:29 am Jul 18 2012

I think micro-chipping certain pets should be compulsory (i.e. dogs and cats.)

I think the gentle recommendation about not having cats in you live in certain wildlife friendly areas sounds sensible.

Cy   #3   08:38 am Jul 18 2012

I don't disagree with keeping tabs on your cat. And they really are very happy to just be left indoors forever. It's warm and there are soft things to lie on.

Also, any chance this blog can get through a day of comments without people posting "Death to all cats" or the like? I realise that's unlikely, but if you honestly think that's reasonable, please seek therapy.

JJJJ   #4   08:41 am Jul 18 2012

I'm all for protecting our native wildlife and think cat owners should take more responsibility for controlling their cats and not letting it roam free... BUT what would happen to the mice and rat population? Will it explode once the cats are controlled?

Jim   #5   08:48 am Jul 18 2012

@ Cy, I do think that it is reasonable to remove all non-native mammal and marsupial breeds (except commercially maintained food, dairy, and fibre animals) from NZ's eco-sphere. I think it needs a much bigger effort than has been made to date and I think the only surviors should be working dogs and the animals they herd.

There is no practical reason for pet ownership in NZ, though I can see Keas being domesticated quite successfully, and yes, I do agree that there is a spiritual and companion aspect to pet ownership but the flip side of feline and canine pets is genocide for species that have no natural predators.

JM   #6   09:02 am Jul 18 2012

We're a nation of cat lovers and bird lovers with a good dose of cognitive dissonance thrown in. I don't believe we need to make the choice of one over the other, but we can't continue to do what we're doing in just letting our cats roam free. What we need are realistic solutions that reduce the pressure on the birds and that are acceptable to cats and their owners. Curfews? Indoor cats only? Thanks for continuing the conversation Nik!

karoricatlover   #7   09:13 am Jul 18 2012

I own two cats and love them dearly. I also love native birds and would love to find a way to make our mainland islands pest free so the native wildlife can flourish in safety. I realise this means doing something about cats. I live in Karori and my yard is full of birds, thanks in part to the Sanctuary I think. In their 7 years of life my cats have brought home between them 3 birds but HUNDREDS (literally) of rats. I think a middle ground (or starting point) would be to keep tabs on cats (microchipping, registration), eliminate wild cats, and maybe start thinking outside the box on how to stop the registered cats killing birds - could they be trained as kittens to only hut rats (aversion therapy or something)? Then they would be part of the solution....

sez   #8   09:14 am Jul 18 2012

Check out this site for some fantastic ideas for keeping cats, from mini windowbox verandahs, to amazing treetop catwalks and aviaries:

In many parts of the world cats are kept indoors to protect wildlife (some states of Australia) or because the local wildlife kills cats (coyotes in some parts of the US).

I do not presently have a cat, and if I do I'll be doing something like this- no cat aids, no run over heartbreak, and no killing of wildlife :)

Tim   #9   09:26 am Jul 18 2012

Great article Nicola.

Mandatory de-sexing, registering, microchipping, night curfews, and bans in certain areas would tackle some of the problem.

But the cats are still there. Like pokies, we should have a 'sinking lid' policy on cat ownership. But it would only garner favour if this was the will of the people, not the law. If people are sufficiently educated about their murderous fluff balls they will come to the decision themselves not to replace their cats.

Alan_Wilkinson   #10   09:29 am Jul 18 2012

Had cats for years with absolutely minimal bird kill and plenty of rodent kills and our garden is full of native birds including weka. We've been in Russell twelve years and during that time not one single bird was killed by our cat or dog.

So I don't think you can generalise. Owners may or may not be responsible and competent. Cats may or may not be hunters. I suspect the survival and abundance of bird life depends more on people's willingness to provide habitat and sustenance for them than removing all cats from the neighbourhood.

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