OPINION: For every person who sees cats as the second most perfect creature in creation, there is another who sees nothing but callous killers.
They are viewed as either cute and cuddly - if lovingly aloof - or uncontrollable and cruel destroyers of native birds and other species: torturing, maiming and finally finishing off their victims for pleasure as much as need.
Passions run strong, for and against, when feline merits are debated. Which is the case again this week, given the huge attention paid to comments from economist, philanthropist and author Gareth Morgan, who is fronting a new campaign calling for more control over cats.
Dr Morgan claims that New Zealanders are the world's most prolific cat owners and the feline population is at least 1.4 million, excluding ferals and strays. He suggests pet cats kill on average 60 "prey items" a year and are a major player in the destruction of native birds, skinks and invertebrates.
On his "catstogo" website, he calls for Kiwis to lobby local governments to require registration and microchipping of cats, and eradication facilities for unregistered ones, and encourages people to trap and turn in unwanted cats on their property. He asks wners to at least neuter their animals, confine them indoors or in a cat-proof enclosure in the yard, and consider not replacing them as they die.
How much traction he will generate remains to be seen. Cat-owners are hardly likely to be enthusiastic about what they will see as yet another tax and unnecessary expense in registering and microchipping their animals. Dog-owners, however, might well ask why officialdom treats cats and dogs so differently.
There are significant bureaucratic costs associated with their pets of choice - regardless of whether they are potentially vicious large animals or gentle, amiable "toys" which wouldn't hurt a fly even if they were fast enough to catch one. If we have to register, chip and confine a 6kg shih-tzu, why should a 10kg Maine coon cat - a breed noted for its hunting prowess as well as its large size - roam at night, free and easy? Surely there are double standards at play.
We are happy to market our green image, even if those credentials are, rightly, challenged from time to time. However, we could do better in some areas - and protecting endangered bird and other species is one of them. Some parts of Australia, recognising the threat posed by cats both feral and domestic, have set up cat-free zones in sensitive wildlife areas and curfews in an attempt to bring some degree of control. No doubt the authorities drew wails of displeasure from cat-lovers on introducing such measures there.
Dr Morgan has done the environment a favour by reheating an old debate at this time. The truth is, it is much easier to own a cat than take the level of responsibility for it that would be required of another form of pet. Just as cats are so efficient at dispatching other species, they are also the only form of pet that is currently given free rein to roam almost anywhere.
The greatest cat-related human culprits are those who choose to dump unwanted kittens in the countryside. But all owners should be more aware of what their moggy's natural instincts can mean to our native species, and take greater steps to control them.
- © Fairfax NZ News