Last week Gareth Morgan, an economist and conservation campaigner, called for cats to be confined or eradicated from his native New Zealand to protect the wildlife. Meanwhile, in the US, a study published this week in the journal Nature found cats are killing more birds and mammals than previously thought. Writer Tom Cox, who shares his home with four cats, and Morgan discuss whether it’s time we learned to live without our feline friends. Emine Saner listens in.
Gareth Morgan: In New Zealand, our endemic species are in a spot of bother. Originally there were no predators here, but we now have an enormous number of species that were introduced when the settlers came – weasels, stoats, ferrets, rats, mice and cats and dogs. And increasing numbers of our endemic species are driven to extinction, particularly ground-restricted birds. We’re having to move them to islands. I funded a project on the Antipodes Islands to get rid of all the mice. Next I’m looking at New Zealand’s third largest island, Stewart Island, where the three species causing the bother there are feral cats, possums and rats. In the course of the research, I thought about the role of cats on the mainland. All I’ve done is try to raise awareness of it, and this thing has gone viral.
Tom Cox: It has. I’ve written a couple of cat books, and on my Facebook page I’ve had endless people sending me links to newsclips about you. I suppose I’m talking from the perspective of someone who lives in Britain, and we have very different wildlife here. The thought of keeping my own cats indoors – that feels like I’d be their prison officer. I don’t think I could do that. But it does break my heart when one of my cats gets a bird, which is quite rare – as a preventative measure, I put bells on their collars. It seems like the majority of the cats that are killing birds here are stray, so a less extreme way to control this would be to encourage people to neuter their cats. There are a ridiculous amount of stray and unwanted cats in this country, because people have been unaware of what having a cat involves, or it’s been an ill-thought-out birthday present. My 17-year-old rescue cat was originally dumped on the hard shoulder of the motorway in a plastic bag with several of his brothers and sisters.
Emine Saner: Do you think owning a cat should be made more difficult?
TC: All cats should be chipped. A cat licence could work, definitely.
ES: The study in the US published this week showed stray and feral cats were the bigger problem than domestic cats, although these contributed to the killing of birds and mammals, too. Gareth, are you concerned about domestic cats as well?
GM: For me, it’s all cats. I would love New Zealand to have no predators at all. Well, that’s a bit extreme – what I mean is no non-confined predators. I’m fine with dogs on leashes. I’m happy with cats as long as they’re confined. Our cat population is exploding, and it is ferals and strays who are free to roam.
TC: It’s that question about what nature is. You could say it’s not natural for cats to be here killing so many birds, but that’s part of nature in itself – the fact that, however many thousands of years ago, we realised cats were good at hunting rats and mice, and it’s evolved into this thing where they’re now wonderful companions to people. It’s part of the question of what is natural.
ES: Cats are responsible for the deaths of wildlife all over the world. Do you think other countries should consider getting rid of their cats?
GM: That’s not for me to say. That’s a national conversation. I did this to spark the national conversation in New Zealand – I didn’t expect it to go all around the world.
TC: Since you started this, have you found cat lovers in New Zealand to be very belligerent?
GM: That would be an understatement. I’ve been on television for the last two nights talking about the SPCA [New Zealand’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] – they’ve been doing trap-neuter-release of stray cats. They’re euthanising fewer and fewer cats, and releasing more into the free-to-range environment, and they’re building up the colonies. They say it doesn’t matter because the cats are neutered, and my response is that they are not neutering enough to cap the population growth. I’ve offered them a $5 bounty per cat if they trap wandering cats and, if it is found to have no owner – if they’re not chipped – then I want them to euthanise those cats, not release them into the wild.
TC: That word, euthanise, gives me a shiver. I’m thinking of a cat I had who turned into the most lovely, sunny creature. He had been in a rescue centre that was just about to euthanise him, and they had no justification for this apart from the fact he was feral. Within a few months he had become a loving domestic cat, and it’s so awful to think that would have happened to him.
GM: The problem is that you get swamped with the numbers of cats, that’s the issue. Let me put this another way – we do this with stray dogs, but not with cats. Why the discrimination? I think it comes down to the strength of the cat lobby.
TC: There’s the cliche of the crazy cat lady, and people who don’t like cats say cat-lovers are weirdos. That’s not true – cat lovers are mostly people with a lot of compassion, but there is a minuscule percentage of people who are a little bit over-the-top about cats. I imagine that would be a challenge you might face, Gareth. Have you ever had a cat?
GM: Absolutely. We have cats in the family now – my daughter has one. But it is confined, and that’s the issue, really.
ES: Could you see a point where cats become indoor-only pets?
TC: That’s never the way I’ve lived with cats, apart from a short period when I lived in a flat in London. I didn’t feel they were happy. Sometimes I feel, when I meet some people’s indoor cats, they seem a bit dopey, like they’re not properly having the life they should.
GM: I suppose I’d put it another way: do we wait until all our endemic species are extinct and then wonder what we’ve done? That’s up for the public to decide. There is a trade-off here. I’m asking for them to be confined. We’re at a tipping point in New Zealand. We have the highest rate of cat-ownership in the world – 48% of households have one or more cats. It’s a different situation elsewhere, which is why I’m reluctant to translate the New Zealand experience anywhere else. What I’m advocating, policy-wise, for local councils is to trap [wandering] cats, and if they’re chipped, they go back to the owner. Whether they fine the owner or not – that’s none of my business. I’m not talking about any euthanasia of owned cats.
ES: But you have said that people shouldn’t replace their cats when they die naturally?
GM: There are people who would find it far too hard to confine them, either physically, or they wouldn’t feel right about it. In those instances, I’m saying make this cat your last, because you owe it to the New Zealand fauna not to let your cat roam.
TC: Even as someone who has had cats all his life, I could imagine making that decision, say if I lived in a different country or a different area of Britain where there was so much bird life. But I remember the old lady who lived across the road from me – you could see the companionship she had with her cat, and how much better it made her life. To say someone like that shouldn’t have that companionship for the remaining years of her life, that’s quite harsh.
ES: Do you think cats are being unfairly scapegoated? Isn’t the bigger threat to wildlife human-made habitat destruction, pollution and so on?
TC: I’m sure we’re far more responsible for harm to the world’s wildlife than cats could ever be, even if it’s just in the form of not having our cats neutered, and contributing to the amount of hungry stray cats who will kill wildlife. There is definitely a quite disturbing victimisation of cats in this country among those who hate them, which seems like a superstitious hangover from the days of torturing innocent women and their so-called “familiars” for alleged witchcraft. Maybe it’s just all a manifestation of the worry people have that cats will one day take over the world.
• Gareth Morgan’s website is garethsworld.com/catstogo. Tom Cox is the author of Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man, and Talk to the Tail: Adventures in Cat Ownership and Beyond (Simon & Schuster)
Read more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/01/cats-threat-wildlife-gareth-morgan