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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.