Kiwis sharpen claws in anti-cat campaign
In an island nation said to harbour more cat owners per capita than any other country, a furore has broken out over a crusade to eradicate man's second-best friend. The charge is being led by Gareth Morgan, a nationally renowned economist-turned-environmental activist who has dubbed cats "natural born killers" that are menacing New Zealand's native bird population and bringing some to the verge of extinction.
In late January, Morgan launched a website outlining a plan that would eventually lead to a cat-free country. Some scientists said he was, in fact, understating the threat posed by moggies, while others argued that the ecosystem was far more complex than he was allowing for.
The mere suggestion of a feline-free nation is raising the dander of cat lovers of every stripe, with everyone from the Prime Minister to animal-welfare activists calling Morgan a kitty hater of the worst sort.
Writing on the Facebook page of opposition group Cats to Stay - which has more than 6000 "likes" - Jeremy Chang wrote of Morgan: "Making the capital pest-free? Then he should stay away from Wellington."
This is a nation with an uneasy relationship with pests. The country is, or was, home to birds that evolved in the absence of native mammals, save three species of bats. Many native birds, including the iconic kiwi, are flightless.
Introduced stoats, rats and possums have long been maligned here as wholly unwelcome interlopers wreaking havoc on the native birdlife and landscape.
New Zealand's Conservation Department spent two years and $NZ600,000 ($500,000) eradicating a family of three stoats from Kapiti Island, near Wellington, for example. But cats? New Zealanders love their felines, with one study estimating they have the highest rate of cat ownership in the world.
"We have got a concerted effort on possums, rats, mice, mustelids [related to the stoat], but the one that stands out is cats. Everybody is too bloody PC and scared to take on cats. So I thought, I can handle that," said Morgan, one of Wellington's best-known figures.
Undeterred by the hate mail in his inbox, the businessman last week took his message to Stewart Island, New Zealand's third-largest land mass, in a campaign to make it pest-free, meaning cleared of feral cats, rats and other pests.
Morgan also wants the 400 residents to contain their free-roaming domestic cats.
New Zealand has already cleared more than 80 of its 220 offshore islands of invasive species. But Stewart Island is 15 times larger than any other that has been made pest-free, so the effort would be closely watched by conservationists around the world.
Morgan insists he is not anti-cat, just anti-wandering-cat. He wants domestic cats registered, as dogs are, and also neutered, kept indoors at all times or taken out on a leash, and not replaced when they die.
The furore has renewed a broader debate about the possibility - however far-fetched - of a New Zealand free of pests.
Why not chuck out the whole lot? The idea gained steam in early 2012 after Paul Callaghan, a celebrated scientist who died later that year, said the concept could be New Zealand's equivalent of the Apollo space program.
The notion of a pest-free New Zealand is not without huge challenges, including a massive price tag: A recent report by Landcare Research, a government research arm, said such an undertaking would exceed $NZ20 billion ($17 billion).
Still, scientists here talk dreamily about their 50-year vision of a country with no pest or invasive species. Cows and sheep could stay, but possums, rats, weasels, ferrets and mice would have to go. And cats? "Cats are the major sticking point to a pest-free New Zealand," said James Russell, an ecologist at the University of Auckland.
It is hard to overstate just how much New Zealanders love birds, perhaps because theirs are unlike any others on the planet.
Their dollar bills are festooned with birds. Radio New Zealand plays a bird call before the morning news. There is a multimillion-dollar bird sanctuary just minutes from downtown Wellington. (Morgan calls it "the most expensive cat food factory in the country".)
But there are competing views on the impact cats have in a complex ecosystem, and whether birds would, in fact, be worse off in the absence of cats, who prey on bird-killing rats. "The jury is out," said Andrea Byrom, an ecologist at Landcare Research.
Morgan helps fuel the debate by taking a few playful swipes at his critics.
Take, for instance, his exchange with Prime Minister John Key after Key said his cat, Moonbeam, would never hurt a bird.
Why not perform an autopsy on Moonbeam, Morgan told the PM. "And if there isn't any feathers, I'll buy you a new one."
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