Claws out over cat campaign

Gareth Morgan's latest campaign has certainly put the cat among the wood pigeons and ruffled more than a few feathers. The economist and philanthropist has launched a campaign against domestic cats, called ''Cats to Go'', through his Morgan Foundation project.

Unsurprisingly for a nation of cat lovers (a 2011 survey by the New Zealand Companion Animal Council found the total cat population was more than 1.4 million and half of households owned at least one cat, making us the world's biggest cat owners per capita), he has caused some offence.

While his message, which is about removing predators and rebuilding our native fauna, clearly has merit, the medium has caused upset, with the website describing cats as ''sadists'' and ''natural-born killers'' that ''have to go if we really care about our environment''. It claims ''your cat is responsible for killing 65 critters per year'', ''is capable of roaming up to 69 hectares'', and ''cats will kill for fun regardless of how much you feed them''.

It states five ways in which to minimise the impact of cats on the environment: fitting them with a bell, getting them neutered, keeping them inside 24 hours a day, not replacing them when they die, and lobbying local governments to require registration and micro-chipping of cats and provision of eradication facilities for unregistered cats.

SPCA chief executive Bob Kerridge called the scheme ''hare-brained and offensive, a bit radical, over the top'' and the facts used ''completely wrong''. He said SPCA surveys showed fewer than half of New Zealand's domestic cats killed other animals and those that did caught far more rodents, which of course are also responsible for killing native birds.

But environmental groups such as Forest and Bird support Mr Morgan's message, citing University of Otago research which showed cats killed large numbers of prey of various kinds, and if extrapolated out could mean they were killing about a million native birds a year nationwide.

In response to the public backlash, Mr Morgan said this week he did ''not hate cats'', but reaffirmed his environmental message and took further issue with the SPCA for its ''trap, neuter, release (TNP) policy, by which stray cats are no longer euthanised but neutered and released, leaving them free, he says, to kill wildlife and spread disease.

The SPCA maintains its desexing policy is ''in the best interest of cats and the community''.

And it seems unlikely New Zealanders will give up on the idea of the family cat. The 2011 Companion Animal Survey found 51% of cat owners cited companionship as their main reason for acquiring the pet, and 83% of cat owners said they were considered as members of the family.

As society changes, people live longer, and more live alone, the importance of companionship is clear. And as well as social support, research has also shown cats reduce stress and depression and provide other health benefits such as reduced blood pressure in humans. Of course with pet ownership comes responsibility - and fitting cats with bells and neutering them would certainly be easily achievable first steps for responsible cat owners, and would help reduce the number of unwanted, stray and feral cats.

Many owners would find it cruel to shut cats inside at all times and, after all, many animal welfare campaigners advocate free-range environments for domestically farmed animals so keeping pets locked inside with no exercise would undoubtedly create a whole other debate. And even the poll on Mr Morgan's campaign website asking respondents to consider making their current cat the last one they own, shows 75%

would not do so. But as Forest and Bird says, Mr Morgan's campaign has at least created awareness around the issues. And as New Zealanders who like to trade on our clean green, 100% pure image, protecting our native flora and fauna is certainly an equally important consideration.

Surely, somewhere between the two viewpoints, there can be a responsible middle ground where cats and native wildlife have an equally respected place - as they clearly do in our hearts.

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