Cuddly little killers

KITTY LITTER: They are highly appealing to humans, but cats kill 100 million birds a year in New Zealand.
KITTY LITTER: They are highly appealing to humans, but cats kill 100 million birds a year in New Zealand.

I write this mired in the clutter of three freshly washed raincoats drying in the lounge. It's winter, so you'd expect that sort of thing, but you would not normally expect the pungent bouquet of cat pee to accompany them. At least, I didn't, before the first of the neighbourhood kittens turned up.

They're gorgeous. Three little balls of fluff getting up to adorable tricks like batting their muddy paws on the clean laundry, getting stuck under the floorboards, and chasing each other up and down my hilly section.

Unfortunately, the wastrels have matured enough now to discover their penises, and suddenly everything within reach of their stinking hindquarters - the door, the raincoats, the mat, the gumboots, the steps, the recycling bins - reeks of cat urine. But worse; the kittens have now started to spend hours perched on the compost bin, watching the birds.

However despite their horrible toilet habits, I'm desperate to adopt them. We always had several family cats when I was a child, and I'm a total victim of what you might call The Science of Aww. An article in the New York Times once explained "cute cues" as those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, and us attending to them closely makes good evolutionary sense.

We're a species whose youngest members are born so helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult help. Seeing something cute gives us a measurable chemical high, stimulating the same pleasure centres in the brain as chocolate, a good meal or recreational drugs.

Thus, we're wired to respond quickly to infants and anything small and pwetty. (The cute craze is getting worse these days. Witness, for example, the slow transformation of New Zealand business logos to the softer, rounder and fluffier. Compare those of AMI, BNZ, Kiwibank, Sorted, ANZ or ASB to their earlier incarnations, and the march of cute characters: a cheerful mouse, a little green car, a pink piggy, a yellow elephant.)

But I'm not going to adopt these stray kittens. In fact, I've decided I'm not adding a new cat to my new house, and that the kittens should be trapped, desexed, and ideally destroyed.

I like cats, but I also think that our native birds, which evolved without them, deserve to be here more. Because what chance do they have? They're almost laughably ill-equipped to cope. The defence mechanism of most New Zealand wildlife protects them only against attack from the sky. What do they do when threatened? They freeze.

It's that cute factor which is preventing us from having a decent conversation about getting rid of the cats. Conservation is already hampered by the panda effect: humans' inability to see value in ugly animals. We care more about kitties than the native skinks they're killing.

It's estimated that every year, cats kill over a billion birds in the United States. Fifty-five million in Britain. One hundred million in New Zealand.

These are not species we can afford to lose. Famously, in the 19th century, one cat wiped out the tiny, flightless Stephens Island wren, and cats have also exterminated entire species of birds from an island off the Coromandel coast - the pied tit, tui, North Island saddleback, and red-crowned parakeet.

Kakapo, rediscovered on Stewart Island in 1977, eventually had to be evacuated to protect them from moggies. An attempt to introduce the functionally extinct brown teal to Canterbury's Travis Wetland in 2009 suffered because of Christchurch's cat population. That is to say nothing of what your well-fed killing machine is doing on the Grampians at night for sport.

New Zealand has a higher rate of cat ownership than any country in the world; half of all homes have at least one, but most people have no idea how many birds their cats are killing, and wouldn't dream of having an "indoor cat", or installing a secure outdoor run.

Talk with environmental organisations and bird groups, and they'll go on about stoats, weasels and loose dogs but get all fidgety when you mention cats. Killing them is bad PR.

This month, Wellington's Zealandia wildlife sanctuary dared to suggest that when people's cats died, perhaps they could think about not getting another one. Cue a huge and predictable outcry from people imagining their cats are "part of the family" - treacherous, disloyal, murderous, adorable little beasts that they are.