Predator-free NZ should be the aim
Dr Gareth Morgan and his website campaign to rid New Zealand of cats called ‘‘Cats to Go’’ has created the expected debate on the topic of cats being killers of native wildlife.
The campaign title predictably aims to cause controversy and in turn raise awareness on a topic that does need to be addressed. For this it needs to be applauded as it certainly has done that.
I have looked at the website and agree with most of what Dr Morgan advocates, much of it being the same as I said in an article in this publication over a year ago. We know cats are very efficient killers of all small wildlife. They are indiscriminate and do it for sport. However, to blame a whole loss of native wildlife on cats is naive and short-sighted.
There are about 1.4 million domestic cats in New Zealand. The number of feral cats does not seem to be exactly known but is thought to be somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000. This is very much fewer than the estimated 66 million possums that destroy thousands of hectares of native bush habitat every year. Then there are all the other predators: Stoats, weasels, ferrets and rats.
The worst offender in the killing of native wildlife is, of course, humans. Although we do not hunt native birds directly (though the moa and hasst eagle are extinct because of human hunting), we manage to reduce native animal population in three other ways:
1. We destroy their habitat by replacing native bush with farmland and pine plantations.
2. We introduced all of the above killers, including cats to control the rabbits man introduced, as well as the non-native birds who compete for habitat and food with natives.
3. Humans use pesticides and insecticides that reduce foods for many birds, native and introduced.
While it is easy to target the domestic cat we need to not only look at controlling their impact but look at the bigger picture and target all predators and possums.
Reducing only cats allows another species opportunities, as was found in the Mackenzie Basin when cats, ferrets and hedgehogs were targeted to help blackfronted tern numbers. They were simply replaced by possums and rats eating them.
Eliminating possums and rats in an urban area within a few years has a significant positive influence on bird populations, as experienced in Tawa and Whitby locally. On my morning walks I can see tui, kereru, wax-eyes and fantails in growing numbers without any change in cat demographics. We therefore need a Predator Free New Zealand, not simply a Cat Free New Zealand.
The cats that need to be targeted are the feral and stray. This is a problem as it’s difficult to know which cats are owned and which are feral or stray. Until all owned, domesticated cats are micro- chipped this will not be possible.
For that to happen government, central or local, needs to make it so, as has been done in many places in Australia, also to protect their unique native wildlife fauna.
The New Zealand Veterinary Association has advocated the following responsibilities:
1. A commitment to ‘‘ whole of life’’ care. This means not dumping unwanted pets.
prevent unwanted litters and reducing cat populations which are currently excessive.
3. Providing appropriate food, shelter and health care.
4. Identification preferably by microchip.
5. Understanding, accepting and following local bylaws.
In addition to this, Gareth Morgan’s website recommends keeping cats indoors ( especially at night), affixing bells to collars (this can help although cats hunt by stealth), cat registration (like that required for dogs), and of course not replacing your cat when it dies.
I agree with all the above except for the last one. But then I am a veterinarian so obviously biased. Just as Dr Morgan is not a lover of cats and therefore happy to have a cat-free New Zealand.
I think we can have both. Cats as family pets and a country with as many birds as the remaining bush will tolerate.
We need to do many things together to achieve this. Hard but certainly possible. To look at all the sides consider going to this site ( http:// www. sciencemedia centre. co. nz/ 2013/ 01/ 23/ catsimpact-on-native-wildlife-expertsrespond/) as well as the ‘‘Cats to Go’’ website.
Dr Ian Schraa is an experienced veterinarian and the owner of Rappaw Veterinary Care.
Food for thought: Do cats deserve their bad rap? Or should we look at ourselves first?