The tiny island nation of New Zealand once again received a disproportionally large amount of media attention when the prominent and widely respected economist, Gareth Morgan, revealed his solution for saving the country's dwindling diversity and abundance of native birds: banning all cats, household or feral, in the entire country. His reason is simple. Cats are natural-born serial-killers of native birds – they have contributed to the extinction of nine birds species -- so eliminating these furry mammals would save the avian population from ruthless paws and jaws. The controversial campaign – “Cats to Go” – has been widely reported in global media outlets such as New York Times and Huffington Post.
Proponents of the proposal underscore the necessity of protecting native species at all costs, and the naysayers ridicule this idea as radical and “over-the-top.” As the New Zealander-in-residence at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy (YCELP), I have been asked on numerous occasions for my position on this issue. This blog is my response (and everybody can stop bothering me now).
While I agree with Morgan on the potential benefits of his proposal, I have my reservations. My reason is also simple: it is not because I hate the native birds. In fact, I have supported their conservation efforts for a long time through volunteering on an offshore bird sanctuary island. Rather, I am simply unsure about the practicality of a non-differentiating, nationwide feline ban, especially given the potential scale of the policy instruments required to implement the ban, as well as the constraints on the current political resources.
For those not familiar with New Zealand, the country has one of the highest cat ownership rates on the planet, with 28 percent of households owning one cat, and a further 20 percent owning two or more. This means cats form an integral part of nearly half of the families in New Zealand. The fact that cats as pets can provide intimate and tangible comforts and joy is deeply ingrained in this country’s culture. In contrast, the native birds are generally more elusive, and the more intangible ecosystem services they provide are very poorly appreciated by everyday New Zealanders. So I suspect that many more people would value the companionship of their cats over the existence of some native bird species that they probably will never see, as sad and cruel as this may sound. And, unfortunately, this conflict of personal and societal interests likely would make the ban very unpopular among the mainstream, at least in the short-term. As a matter of fact, despite the international publicity, a week into its launch Morgan’s campaign has only managed to attract around 2,000 signatures, equivalent to 0.04 percent of NZ’s already small population.
From the government’s perspective, it is wise not to invest limited resources in policies unlikely to attract supports. Furthermore, alternative bird-saving options are available and are far less controversial: elimination of other predators such as possums and weasels, implementation of breeding programs, construction of pest-free sanctuaries, just to name a few. If these bird species remain endangered, the government could even consider striking a middle ground and impose some type of cat controls, such as restricting household cats to indoors while eliminating feral cats, for example. Conversely, a single-minded pursuit of a “home-run” is, in my mind, counterproductive, and will likely end in a lose-lose situation for both the campaigners and the birds they are trying to protect.
Interested in invasive species management? Attend the YCELP’s panel discussion, “Eating Invaders: A Panel Discussion on Invasive Species”, which will be held at Yale Law School at 6:10 pm on February 13.
William Miao is a first-year Master of Environmental Management (MEM' 14) candidate at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His research focus is on the application of integrated environmental tools and frameworks at corporate, industrial, and national levels. Originally a chemical engineer from Auckland, New Zealand, his previous work involved risk management for oil and gas production, waste to energy research, and life-cycle assessment for the steel industry.