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May 24, 2013

The trans-Tasman cat fight: why Fluffy has to go

Wandering cats are a menace to native birds and wildlife, but the cat "right to life" lobby is preventing them being euthanased. Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons of NZ's Morgan Foundation want a cat crackdown.

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Angry cat

New Zealanders are proud of their “clean and green” image, and yet half of all Kiwi households harbour one or more natural-born killers of our native wildlife: cats. Incredibly, New Zealand has the highest rate of cat ownership per capita in the world.

In January, New Zealand’s Morgan Foundation launched a campaign (known as “Cats to Go“) to rid the country of wandering cats. Only cats that are free to wander or kill are a problem; indoor or confined cats, as are common in parts of the US and Australia, are no issue.

But wandering cats are devastating. NZ, like Australia, has unique wildlife that evolved without mammalian predators like stoats, cats and rats. The wildlife thus has no natural defences against these creatures, and as a result cats have easily become apex predators. In areas where cats are kept in high numbers — towns and cities — our native birds and lizards suffer local extinctions.

Getting rid of wandering cats would not unleash a plague of vermin across the landscape, as some claim. Most cities have far more cats than we need to control rodents — five times as man. In addition, it is the availability of food that really controls rat numbers, not cats.

Cats in NZ are above the law. Shoot a native bird, and you would be prosecuted. But if your cat kills a bird every week, it is ignored. If a dog strays, the dog is captured and the owner is fined (or if there is no owner, destroyed). Yet the only way a property owner can keep wandering cats off his or her land is to put up a cat-proof fence, or sit in the garden all day with a hose.

“Cats in NZ are above the law … people need to give up the notion that cats are an ‘easy pet’ and start taking them seriously.”

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals handles wandering cats, as councils shy away from euthanasing people’s pets by mistake. The SPCA also dislikes euthanasing cats, so the focus was put on re-homing them. Yet no matter how much was spent there were always more cats than homes — a sure sign that we weren’t dealing with the root of the problem. As the staff in our SPCAs grew tired of euthanasing cats and SPCA coffers swelled with donations from crazy cat ladies who valued the cat’s right to life over all others, the NZ SPCA parted ways from its Australian cousin (RSPCA) and adopted the sick practice of trap, neuter, return (TNR).

TNR is a sure sign that the cat “right to life” lobby has taken over. Stray cats are neutered and returned to their semi-wild colonies, where they are fed. The idea is that over time the colony will die off, but it rarely happens in practice. In the meantime, the cats (like all wandering cats, including the well-fed ones) keep on killing.

TNR will not control the wandering cat population. The only answer is to deal with the problem at its root cause. City councils must take back responsibility for managing cats as they have for dogs. Any cat turned over to the pound should be checked for a microchip (a sign of ownership) or be humanely dispatched. The only way to reduce the amount of cats that are euthanased is to neuter all cats and stop them being dumped. People need to give up the notion that cats are an “easy pet” and start taking them seriously.

Some areas in Australia are ahead of NZ — they do exactly what we have set out above. However, many areas still do not. Even if they have a pound and mandatory registration and chipping of cats, the success in controlling cats comes down to the amount of effort put into trapping and euthanasing stray cats, not simply re-homing them.

Just like NZ, many parts of Australia display huge double standards — they invest in restoration of our natural species and then stand by while those animals are plundered by wandering cats. Many organisations that care for our native wildlife have to get by on volunteer labour. Meanwhile we all invest donations and public money into funding programmes for cats to be rehomed so they can carry on killing. Local luminaries flock to be on the SPCA board as it is seen as a sure-fire way to be seen to “do some good”. This culture of hypocrisy needs to change if we are to take saving our wildlife seriously.

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