VSAts have long held a special place in the life of ex-breeder and conservationist, Julie Boyd, providing color and companionship, as well as being avid rodent hunters. On his sprawling rural New Zealand property in the town of Kaipara Flats in the upper North Island, the cats roam free.
“I have an older cat – Padme – who is 17-18 [years old], she’s not catching anything,” Boyd notes, “I also have three other desexed cats. Ariki enjoys hanging out in the hay barn where he knows mice will be taking up residence now that fall has arrived.
With 1.4 million domestic cats, Aotearoa has one of the highest cat ownership rates in the world – at least 40% of households have at least one. Feral cats are also reported to number in the millions.
But estimates from a conservation group, Forest and Bird, suggest that New Zealand’s pet cats alone kill at least 1.12 million native birds a year, in some cases helping to propel them into the wild. ‘extinction. In an early case, a lighthouse keeper’s cat wiped out an entire species, the flightless Lyall’s Wren, on Stephens Island in the late 19th century.
Like many New Zealand cat owners who think feral rather than domestic cats are the problem, Boyd insists his pets mainly hunt mice and rats rather than birds.
And the cats have been left out of Predator Free 2050, the government’s ambitious plan to rid the island nation of pests including stoats, ferrets, weasels, rats and opossums. Now there are growing calls from environmental groups for cats to be part of the plan.
Boyd, who recently helped restore two acres of wetlands bordering his property, doesn’t think Predator Free 2050 or cat regulations will solve the problem.
“Cats may be considered the easiest predators to eliminate, but cats play an important role for many humans. Pet cats are generally considered part of the family. They also kill a significant number of rodents.
An apex predator on a bird island
Tamsin Orr-Walker, chairman of the Kea Conservation Trust, says if New Zealand has any chance of extinguishing introduced predators over the next 30 years, it needs to have a serious discussion about cats.
“The issue is specifically about our relationship with cats. I’m not anti-cat. There are so many people who have cats as pets. But a lot of people don’t see their pet as a hunter, which all cats are,” she says.
Orr-Walker wants cats to be considered in the Predator Free 2050 plan, as well as the introduction of tougher regulations on domestic cats.
She cites Australia – which requires owners to register their cats after three months, and in some parts of the country limits ownership to two cats per household and enforces cat curfews at night – as a useful example of what form stricter regulation might take. .
“It’s a conversation we need to have about how cats can be at least as damaging as dogs to our wildlife. We’ve addressed the impact of dogs on wildlife with very comprehensive legislation in our dog control law, but nothing prevents us from regulating cats.
Orr-Walker is currently working on evidence of feral cats attacking adult kea. New Zealand’s highly endangered alpine parrot has gone from a pesky bird known for its mischievous nature to a nationally endangered species lurking in high mountains, declining to an estimated population of 3,000-7,000 .
As a place once free of land mammals except for a few species of bats, New Zealand’s native birds, insects, lizards and bats are defenseless against predators such as cats. In an infamous case in 2010, a feral cat mauled 102 short-tailed bats, which were roosting in beech trees on Mount Ruapehu, over the course of a week.
In Wellington and Kaikōura, there are reports of free-roaming domestic cats decimating colonies of native banded dotterels. There are also concerns that recent conservation successes, such as the return of the endangered tīeke to Wellington, are being sabotaged by free-roaming cats.
It proved to be a sensitive subject to fill, with cat owners feeling demonized and conservationists vilified as cat haters. Tensions reached a crescendo in 2013, when philanthropist and ex-politician Gareth Morgan unveiled his efforts to eradicate cats as part of the Cats to Go campaign, sparking widespread consternation – including opposition from the Prime Minister of the time – while Morgan received hate mail and even death threats.
After the furor of this campaign, there is still no policy on domestic cats. Jessi Morgan, chief executive of Predator Free New Zealand Trust and daughter of Gareth, understands that domestic cats play an important role in society, but argues that without regulation conservation work is compromised.
“Tools for controlling cats are limited, especially if you’re near populated areas, because you can’t risk killing a beloved moggie,” she says.
“We advocate for responsible ownership of cats, a bit around educating people about the impact cats have on native species in New Zealand… We think it’s important that people keep the cats at home, microchipping them and de-sexing them.”
Although her cats have been desexed, Boyd says she won’t keep her cats indoors or support other regulations.
“I don’t believe that licensing cats or owners is the solution. Licensing cat owners means that good cat owners will be penalized and subsidize others, never achieving the goal of preventing cats from predating native wildlife.