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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.

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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31 comments

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31 thoughts on “The trans-Tasman cat fight: why Fluffy has to go

  1. JStephens

    I totally agree. The amount of dead lizards and other small native animals I see around (antichinus etc)when I walk my dog in the morning is heartwrenching. My sister is a cat person and used to insist on getting kittens which used to run away before being neutered, at least 3 or 4 times. She finally saw the light and now has 2 pre-loved pound cats who stay indoors at night and wear a bell to alert potential prey. I wish every cat owner were like that!

  2. wilful

    My grandfather in Gisborne (NZ) used to regularly set a cat trap and shoot the local moggies. Did NOT make him popular in his street I can tell you!

  3. drovers cat

    Here we go – as usual with human behaviour attribution, blame the victim. In this case, the cat.
    I will of course duly trundle out the usual fact that human activity has far more effect on wildllife than cats -but then add to that the fact that humans’ treatment of cats and other pets as a fashion statement, chattel or child bribe, or disallowing older people taking long-loved pets into aged care, also anti-pet rental attitudes all contribute to HUMANS deserting CATS to fend for themselves.
    It would help if pet shops were banned from sellig cats along with hefty fones for famrers and breeders selling or giving away un-de-se*ed cats
    Cats do what comes naturally, and are trainable to some degree, but keeping them inside is an absolute must.
    Of course, all these words are wasted on those – I estimate at least 80% of males – who just hate cats anyway.

  4. extra

    And here I was thinking that all those ex-Australian possums were the principal threat to NZ wildlife. Or was it habitat destruction?

    Can someone provide hard data, please? Otherwise I may be forced to the conclusion that this is another anti-cat indulgence from someone with money to burn.

  5. Microseris

    When owners and Councils refuse to address the problem, the solution is obvious. All cats found on my property are feral.

  6. mikeb

    I would gladly shoot any cat that wandered on my property – or dog for that matter if I could. I don’t blame the animals but that also doesn’t mean that I have to allow them to kill anything in my backyard that takes their fancy. Bandicoots might dig holes in my garden & parrots eat my fruit but they were here first and deserve protection.

  7. Pusscat

    My dad routinely drowned all cats and kittens upon detection, and although this could be mildly traumatic for us as kids, at least he was always explicitly doing it on behalf of the local native birds. He loved them, so we did too.

    (Don’t know how he’d feel about living in the many places in Oz that are now avian monocultures of Indian mynahs.)

    As an adult, I’ve enjoyed feline pets, but always under a strict regime of totally excluding the cute little fellahs from any opportunity of expressing their natural instinct for predating fauna.

  8. Mish Singh

    Hooray to everyone above, pretty much! Especially re the prevailing sentiment of why blame cats? Cats don’t ask to be introduced into ‘native’ environments (and how long does an animal have to be present before it’s counted as native, anyway? Just wondering). The one very sensible suggestion in this article was for councils to treat cat ownership as they do dog ownership. The responsibility is ours – not the cats’. My moggies are all desexed and never allowed outside unless under supervision (yes, I know that sounds a bit weird, put like that).
    The concern expressed over native wild animals is absolutely valid. The implied ‘cats are nasty little bastards who kill everything and should be shot on sight’ is unnecessary and fundamentally very, very unfair.

  9. AR

    As with soi disant ‘dangerous dogs’, it’s a case of four legs non culpa, two legs are the problem. Owners who are ignorant, arrogant and/or plain irresponsible should be chargeable at law, just like DUI.

  10. Brian Williams

    As an expat-kiwi happily living in the land of Oz, this reminds me of the kind of half-baked ideas that permeated NZ and caused me to cross the ditch in the first place.

    You have more chance of getting John Howard and Peter Costello to admit they wasted billions on middle class welfare, than you have of getting Australians to abandon their love of cats.

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