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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.