Cat fight

On the so-called catflap, Gareth Morgan's conversation firestarter - because sometimes, "when the fail is so strong, one facepalm is not enough"

Gareth’s speech to our 2012 conference was a doozy. A cautionary tale of the “green extreme”, on how “tub-thumping activism” was giving conservation a bad name, he rounded off by telling a 14 year old girl (a guest of ours, who stood up and bravely, passionately challenged him in front of a room of 300 people) that her question was “pathetic” - and somewhere in the middle of it all, offered this:

“2. … polarization of views on conservation - if you’re pro-conservation you’re anti economic growth. This needlessly alienates huge numbers of people from conservation that should be our constituency.

“Considered conservationists need to have the courage now to disown publicly this behavior,” he said, and ensure that those responsible for it were marginalised.

So! - while in some ways I think more oxygen is the last thing we need here - naturally, in the Herald again today, Morgan added a bit more fuel.

He wants cats neutered, belled, registered and micro-chipped. He wants to withdraw the social licence for free-range cats, like smoking.

What he also said, and has said and written repeatedly, was (my emphasis):

“I think that people should deploy cage live-traps to capture cats that stray into their back yard, box them and leave them on the doorstep of the local authority. Only this way will we force councils to wake up and bring the same policies in here so we can eradicate strays and unregistered cats.”

So that’s ... a pre-emptive illegal licence to cat haters and vigilantes, then, to snatch people’s currently unregistered pets, and transport them in a way that's bound to create its own risks of escape, and a rise in the numbers of strays? A breach of animal welfare codes (unnecessary distress to the cat), and a criminal offence?

“To be clear, I have never and will never advocate killing people's pets or placing outright bans.” Jolly good. But here in the Atlantic, responding to the question “What is your plan to eliminate the NZ cat population?” - his reply: “to educate the public and have them carry out the action”.

Gareth’s playing politics. He wants something moderate, if we’re lucky; he’s flying a kite for something extreme.

For better or worse, he’s started a predator-free New Zealand debate. Yay! I wish it were PFNZ we were debating, not cats! I agree with him: “some of the debate has been pretty facile” - chiefly, the information on his own website.

But there’s no use (my friend and former colleague Nicola) whining about how the results of this are “frankly disturbing” - rambling about how some of your best friends are cats, etc. He threw a grenade, and lit a fire - he is the grenade, his own wee self-contained incendiary device. Not much cause for complaint about the results, and Gareth sure isn’t complaining.

What we’ve also got is a sort of low-grade civil war in which - redubbing his own words to our conference - “if you’re pro-bird, you’re anti-cat”. And what’s really disturbing here is the lack of policy smarts about it.

Having found your problem, is the response well-targeted? Is it a proportional response? Benefits vs costs?

From the people who weren’t Gareth, we learned what those of us with cats already know: there’s no basis to vilify all cats. Not all house cats are hunters (I’m not offering this on my own observation, although this is also true). Even among those who are, overall, imperfectly, it probably works out: reporting very nicely on this:

Secondly, cats aren’t dogs. It never got more facile than that analogy, and extrapolating from it: cats mustn’t be allowed to wander on to anyone else's property - therefore, kept inside. They're cats! Look here: illegal, possibly (opportunity to express natural behaviour, need for exercise), quite apart from stupid, and downright cruel. The cat can see and smell and hear that there’s something outside and loves being out there, just like you.

I guess Gareth imagines we would redesign all our houses, thus archly setting in place prohibitive barriers to cat ownership. It might suit his own worldview and $50 million, but it won’t ever be mine, and needn’t be New Zealand’s.

Thirdly: in calling for cat owners to be responsible, trust them to be responsible. Educate people, if anyone’s still listening; I got over being shouted at in a very stupid way on about Wednesday morning. Even if not all kills come home, trust owners to know which of their pets are the hunters. Remember: for every bird saved by a bell on that cat, so is a rodent.

Gareth’s argument is in there, you just have to get past the cloud of insults (“crazy cat ladies”, “loony ‘cat rights’ advocates”) and obfuscation to find it.

If one goal and huge selling-point of a ‘predator-free’ NZ (deliberate use of inverted commas) is to bring kiwi, saddlebacks, weka, kokako, lizards, (wetas?) back to your place, cats which hunt will hunt what is there, and a lot of thankless painstaking work will be ruined (the “Zealandia’s the biggest cat food factory...” argument).

So yep, fewer cats would be better - and, you might think, eradicating ferals and stray cat colonies, not domestic cats at all, could be a good place to start.

This is just what he wrote, in the Herald (see above).

On registration and micro-chipping, imagine if - now you've got people's attention - you cut out the stupid, and put it like this. 

Humanely trapping and/or euthanasing feral and stray cats will help predator-free; helps wildlife; also help make your own cat safer, because those populations fight and carry lethal disease (and btw, lobby the SPCA on stray cat colonies). We can’t trap them where people live, and guarantee your own pet will be kept safe, unless it’s identified and registered. So if you love your cat, and want him to have a good life - registering's a good idea.

The thing with Gareth is, ironically, a bit like the cats - even when he's being a pain in the arse, he's half on the side of the angels.

Nothing and probably no one else could have made this opportunity for the whole country to talk for a week about predator-free NZ. The trouble is, we didn't really - and in a way that's just as well. Because if Gareth keeps going like this, with every reason to think that he plans to ("the idea was to galvanize a public reaction, that has been achieved. Stage II will be released in the next month and will wind up the ante..."), in the end he'll do a lot of harm to his own credibility, and the whole cause.


Claire Browning is a Forest & Bird conservation advocate. This post is done in her personal capacity - as a former policy wonk, who is both a voice for nature, and cat owner.