Should New Zealanders kill their kittens to save their native birds?

Domestic cats are furry murderers, argues a New Zealand businessman who is spearheading a campaign to get his fellow Kiwis to give them up.

'Save a Kaka, kill your cat' is the message of New Zealand businessman Gareth Morgan, who has started a campaign to rid the ecologically isolated islands of murderous felines in attempt to stem the dwindling numbers of native birds.

For 80 million years, the archipelago has been separated by ocean from any other land. Apart from one mouse-sized animal which went extinct around 16 million years ago, there have never been any land mammals on the islands (although there remain two species of native bat, and plenty of whales, dolphins and seals). That left an ecological niche which was largely filled by birds, being some of the few animals which could reach the islands after the seas split them from the rest of Gondwanaland.

New Zealand has some of the most unique, and clueless, birds in the world. The Kakapo is a giant green parrot which eats grass and has sex with Stephen Fry's head. The Kiwi is the size of a chicken, and lays an egg so big that the female, for the last couple of days of her incubation, has no room for any food in her stomach and must fast. The Kokako is a semi-flightless bird which sings duets in breeding pairs for hours on end and occupies the same niche as a flying squirrel.

None of them were ever exposed to predatory land mammals until the Maori arrived in the 14th century, and so they have very few natural defences against them. The introduction of mice and rats was bad enough, but once cats appeared, it was nearly over. The Kakapo and Kiwi are now critically endangered species, each limited to a few islands which have been cleared of introduced predators — but there's hope for the Kokako, as well as the Kaka and Weka which are also under threat. And one thing which would help is New Zealanders giving up their cats.

Gareth Morgan has started a campaign, Cats to Go, which is pushing for that aim. He writes:

New Zealand is the last refuge of a huge range of bird species, we’re famous for our claim to be clean and green, and some of us have recognised the huge economic benefit, let alone the ecological dividend, from achieving a Predator Free New Zealand.

But the vision is flawed. Almost half of Kiwi households have a cat (or two) making New Zealanders the world’s biggest cat owners. Cats are incredibly effective hunters and are wiping out our native birds.

… Like the parent of a bully saying that their little Johnny would not behave like that, if you’re a cat owner reading this, you are probably thinking that the above statistics don’t apply to your cat. The fact is that your furry friend is actually a friendly neighbourhood serial killer.

He doesn't actually want people to kill their cats directly — though he emphasises that "that is an option" — instead proposing that people put bells on their cats to warn birds, keep them inside, get them neutered, and, above all, not replace them when they die.

Even if it works, there is a long way to go to make New Zealand safe for its native birds. Rats, mice and possums are all widespread and causing damage of their own. But a cat-free New Zealand might still be worth fighting for.

New Zealand's killer kittens. Photograph: Cats to Go

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt