Staging a pussy riot

Last updated 12:38 24/01/2013

Today's blog is not a blog about cats per se. Instead, let's focus on the corners we run to when the cat conversation comes up. What is it about the cat issue that polarises us all in New Zealand?

This week the indefatigable Gareth Morgan wandered into tricky terrain with his "Cats to Go" campaign, calling for the New Zealand public to rethink their love affair with cats.

Within hours, headlines screamed that Morgan was calling for "Cats to be wiped out". Was he, though? Or was he prompting a long overdue conversation about how we have cats in this country?

Gareth Morgan cat moustache (credit: Jackson Wood)

Gareth's "Cats to go" campaign has sparked internet outrage, and some funny memes including this one from Jackson Wood.

Sparking the conversation
Having spent the better part of the past decade working in communications, I know from experience that trying to get the media to pick up an issue that you believe is important is a huge hurdle. More often than not,  my well-crafted press releases would disappear into the trash folder of countless journos' computers. The key to getting your stuff in the media is having a "hook", and generally that relates to something being really cute, really gross or really shocking.

If Gareth had put out a press release that said "Hey guys, I've been thinking a lot about cats and their impact on native wildlife, and I know that they're not the only predator, but what do you reckon about registering and neutering your cats?", it wouldn't have made the smallest community newspaper.  By going hard-out on the cat issue, he has (quite intentionally) started a conversation, a debate, a chance to deliberate just why we do have so many cats and why we have no controls over them. I don't agree with everything Gareth has said, but I say the mere fact he has sparked a conversation (more of a shrieking wail from some corners) is a GOOD THING.

(NB: This blog is about the debate, not the topic, but the Science Media Centre has an excellent  summary of scientists' responses to the cat issue in New Zealand.)

I have been outspoken about the need for us to question our love affair with cats since long before Gareth began his campaign, and I see nothing wrong with asking people not to replace their cat when it dies (especially if you live in or near amazing wildlife areas). In fact, on perusing his website, under the "What you can do" section, he says "We don't suggest you knock your favourite furry friend on the head."  The suggestions there are about thinking about not replacing your cat when it dies, getting it neutered, getting a bell and getting your local council to introduce registration of cats. The enormous "Pussy Riot" via traditional and social media that has ensued is inaccurate and, frankly, disturbing. Wayne Linklater over at the Science Media Centre, covers the issue well here.

Feral cats at Macraes Flat (photo: Nicola Toki)

This is just one morning's trap line at Macraes Flat in Otago in 2004. The cats (in addition to the stoats, ferrets, weasels, hedgehogs, rats, possums, magpies) were driving two seriously endangered species of giant skink (grand and Otago skinks) to extinction. Only intensive predator control has saved the skinks. (Photo: Nicola Toki)

The gun control debate in drag
The voracity with which the New Zealand cat-loving public have responded to the eminently reasonable suggestions that we should in fact regulate our cats has been, in my view, rather concerning. A mate of mine suggested that if you replaced the word "cat" with the word "gun", this debate would be almost indistinguishable from the current gun control debate roaring along in the United States. 

It's my RIGHT to have a cat!
Let me just start by saying that when I was a kid, my best furry friend (when I was six) was an enormous black fluffy Persian once-stray cat called Fluffy. When we moved to Aoraki Mount Cook National Park we had to leave Fluffy behind. This was sad, but the reality of our situation of moving to a National Park. I still have a photo of me holding Fluffy (her feet touching the ground), with tears streaming down my face. But those were the rules. Why then, is the suggestion of rules around cats in urban/suburban areas such a big deal?

Everybody loves their pets and many New Zealanders love cats (including my friend and colleague Nick over at Four Legs Good who had this to say). As I have mentioned many times, I grew up with cats, loved them to pieces, still even like some cats, but I choose not to have another one. I made a value judgment about cats and native wildlife (I have skinks living under my house) and decided I didn't actually need one.

People may well feel attached to their cats (my Mum has had her cat Sophie for 14 years now and loves her to pieces), and I do understand their benefits as companion animals, but with pet ownership comes responsibility.

In Australia, cat owners are required to register their cats. This was actually lobbied for by their SPCA, in order to try to reduce the numbers of cats and unwanted kittens over there.

As a dog-owner, I have a responsibility to pay to register my dog and ensure that he doesn't wander on to other people's properties. I do this gladly for the privilege of having him in my life.  It irks me that cat owners in New Zealand have no responsibility to register their cat and cats can wander wherever they want, with no consequences. A workmate told me this morning he found a cat nine kilometres from its owner's house recently.

The numbers game
In addition to the lax regulations for felines, I could have two cats, 30 cats or more, with no restrictions around that.  Forty-eight per cent of all New Zealand households have at least one cat.  We now have the dubious honour of having the highest rate of cat ownership in the world. The question is, do we really need to have so many?

Too many cats

A friend of mine said last night that her neighbour's cat has just had another litter of kittens. This is not because he likes having kittens around or has lined up homes for them, just that he doesn't care about getting his cat neutered.

With regard to neutering, in the mostly internet-based firestorm (what is that WEIRD correlation between the internet and cats!) that has ensued since Gareth launched his campaign, I have seen people saying that the government should pay to neuter cats. What!? Why should the government pay for this? If you choose to have a cat, you are also choosing to be a responsible pet owner, aren't you? That includes the costs of feeding and housing and neutering and any other vet bills that come your way. You don't just get to have a cat or many cats and not invest anything in that... that to me is the pinnacle of ignorance.

Here in New Zealand, with the highest number of threatened species per capita, we do have certain responsibilities to our natural heritage.

We know that cats are a serious predator of native wildlife in New Zealand. We have plenty of evidence of that, and we also know that cats have caused extinctions. I've already covered my stance on that here.

What about the other predators?
Since the launch of Cats-to-go, I have seen calls for campaigns for other predators that impact on our native wildlife. This has ranged from "Humans-to-go" to "Rich-men-telling-me-what-to-do-to-go". There have been attacks on Gareth's campaign for ignoring the "real" predators of rats and stoats etc. To me, this is distractionary.

Of course rats and stoats and possums are a major problem - it is for that reason that the then-minister of conservation, Kate Wilkinson, launched a two-day "Pest Summit" in Wellington in December. This summit was a meeting of the country's best minds on predator control, to try to answer the question of how we step up our large-scale predator eradication in New Zealand, with an eventual aim of getting rid of all small mammalian predators and bringing our dawn chorus back to our cities, farms and forests. 

As Sir Paul Callaghan said a year ago, such an idea is "... crazy and ambitious, but I think it might be worth a shot."

To be fair to Gareth, when it comes to stepping towards a Predator Free New Zealand, he has already put his money where his mouth is.  After visiting the Subantarctic Islands and being blown away by the wildlife to be found down there, he began his "Million Dollar Mouse" campaign, where he and his wife Jo will match dollar-for-dollar any contributions from the public to reach a million dollars in order to get mice off Antipodes Island.  He also went down to Stewart Island, hung out with the locals, and asked them whether they'd like to pursue a project to see what it would take to get cats, rats and possums off all 170,000 hectares. In that instance, he left it up to the community to decide if they wanted such a project to go ahead. Eighty-four per cent of respondents said yes.

But back to the cat debate. Good friends of mine have different views about how this conversation was started and words have been exchanged. One of my friends I would normally be exchanging words with has gone silent.  I maintain that while I don't necessarily agree with everything Gareth has said, I do agree the time is long overdue for us as a country to be having the conversation about cats. To me, the mere fact that Campbell ran a story featuring the tireless predator control work of volunteers in Ark in the Park, that we are starting to think about the consequences of predators (not just cats) on our native birds, in a country where a quick look at "most popular stories" on the Stuff website is enough to make you cry - all of this is a step in the right direction.

Kakapo killed by cat (photo: DOC)

Cats on Stewart Island almost sent the remaining kakapo there to extinction, before the last birds were removed to predator-free areas. 

What do you think? Why do we get so entrenched about cats? What do you see is the way forward here? Can we get away from all the finger-pointing and name-calling?

» Please feel free to email me to send me your questions, feedback, ideas or photographs for In Our Nature blog posts. You can also join the In Our Nature Facebook page.

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