Cat-astrophe or Conservation? New Zealand and Australia Propose Eradication of Cats to Conserve Endangered Bird Species.

By: Caitlin McBride

A country teeming with lush, vibrant vegetation hosts some of the rarest sights in the world—a small blue bird with a bright yellow forehead darts among branches;[1] a small parrot with emerald wings collects berries from a low-hanging bush;[2] and a small flightless bird bops around the undergrowth.[3] New Zealand is home to a wide variety of beautiful and rare birds, and one of the highest proportions of endangered species in the world.[4] In fact, birds are so important to the country that they appear on its currency.[5]

            Unfortunately, these natural beauties are disappearing at an alarming rate. According to a 2016 assessment published by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, fifty-nine bird species have become extinct since first human contact with New Zealand; up from an estimated twenty species in 2008.[6] Of the remaining 426 known living bird species, “71 (16.7%) were assessed as Threatened . . . and 107 (25.1%) were assessed as At Risk.”[7] Under the New Zealand Threat Classification System, thirty-seven different bird species are currently listed as Nationally Critical or Nationally Endangered.[8]

            While human impact contributes to the birds’ decline (from habitat loss,[9] inadvertent poisoning, accidental and deliberate killings,[10] etc.), another threat is stalking these rare birds: cats. Although fluffy felines may seem more like a cuddly house pet than a dangerous predator, they pose real problems to wildlife. According to a 2013 study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Fish and Wildlife Service, between 1.3 and 4 billion birds are killed by cats each year in the United States alone.[11]

According to Gareth Morgan, a New Zealand economist, cats are not only a pest to endangered wildlife, but one that must be eradicated.[12] Morgan launched a website in January 2013, outlining a plan to entirely eliminate feral cats and other in New Zealand.[13] Morgan considers cats “natural born killers” and argues that they are bringing many of the endangered bird species to the point of extinction.[14] Morgan noted that he does not call for the killing of domestic cats, just “wandering” cats—but he does believe that pet cats should not be replaced after they die, and should be kept indoors and neutered while alive.[15]

Despite the influx of hate mail received by Morgan (much of which reportedly comes from American cat-lovers),[16] the notion seems to be gaining traction in Australia and New Zealand. In 2016, the Australian government announced its plan to combat feral cats and other pests to protect the country’s endangered species.[17] Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt planned to cull (bait and shoot or poison) 2 million feral cats by 2020.[18]

            Similarly, some municipalities of New Zealand are following suit. In August 2018, Omaui, a small coastal town in New Zeland, proposed to eliminate cats entirely from the thirty-five-resident town.[19] The ban would prohibit anyone from adopting cats and bringing any new cats into the village, and existing cats would be phased out—allowed to live the rest of their natural lives, but not allowed to be replaced.[20]

While the law may seem extreme to cat-lovers, it actually is fairly in line with existing New Zealand policies. In 2016, for example, New Zealand enacted an aggressive plan to eradicate all invasive mammal species—such as rats, stoats, and possums—by 2020.[21] Prime Minister John Key announced that the government would set aside $2.3 billion to fund the project, although a previous study suggested that the effort could take $20 billion.[22]

New Zealand also has limitations on the importation of certain types of pets to limit the spread of bird and poultry diseases; for example, companion birds must pass an important health screening (HIS) to enter the country.[23] New Zealand also bans the importation of “ferrets, guinea pigs (except from Australia), mice and rats (except laboratory animals), and snakes and other reptiles (except some reptiles for zoos).”[24]

            A ban on domestic animals is also not extreme in a global context; international treaties, countries, and municipalities all over the world implement restrictions on animals. For example, many cities in the United Kingdom[25] and the United States[26] have bans on specific “dangerous dog” breeds. On an international scale, the trade of endangered animals such as pangolins have been banned to preserve threatened and endangered species.[27]

            Ultimately, it is unclear whether a ban on domestic cats or the extermination of feral ones will have a significant impact on threatened bird species. However, if citizens of New Zealand wish to conserve their threatened birds, they may have to do so at the expense of their feline friends.

 

 

 

 


[1] Chatham Island Tūī, N.Z. Dep’t. of Conservation, https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/chatham-island-tui/. (last visited Nov. 01, 2018). The Tūī is listed as Nationally Endangered. Id.

[2] Kea, N.Z. Dep’t. of Conservation, https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kea/. (last visited Nov. 01, 2018). The Kea is listed as Nationally Endangered and cats are listed as a major predator. Id.

[3] Rowi, N.Z. Dep’t. of Conservation,  https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/kiwi/rowi/. (last visited Nov. 01, 2018). The Rowi is listed as Nationally Vulnerable. Id.

[4] See Taylor Telford, Cat-aclysm: New Zealand Village Considers Banning Felines to Save Endangered Birds, The Washington Post (Aug. 30, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/08/30/cat-aclysm-new-zealand-village-considers-banning-felines-save-endangered-birds/?utm_term=.9e55565d9955. (last visited Nov. 01, 2018).

[5] See Banknotes in Circulation, Reserve Bank of New Zealand, https://www.rbnz.govt.nz/notes-and-coins/notes/banknotes-in-circulation. (last visited Nov. 01, 2018).

[6] Hugh A. Robertson et al., Conservation Status of New Zealand Brids, 2016, N.Z. Dep’t of Conservation, May 2017, at 4. Available at https://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/science-and-technical/nztcs19entire.pdf. The researchers believe that forty species were actually extinct before 1800, but could not confirm this beyond a reasonable doubt until after 2008.

[7] Id.

[8] New Zealand’s Threatened Birds, N.Z. Dep’t of Conservation, https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/conservation-status/threatened-birds/. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[9] See, e.g., Lou Sanson, From the Director-General, in New Zealand’s Threatened Species Strategy, N.Z. Dep’t of Conservation, May 2017, at iii. Available at https://www.doc.govt.nz/contentassets/97142dceee6b4f0e95a625ab4fa58dfc/threatened-species-strategy-draft.pdf.

[10] See Kea, supra note 2.

[11] Scott R. Loss, Tom Will, & Peter P. Marra, The Impact of Free-Ranging Domestic Cats on Wildlife of the United States, Nature Communications, Jan. 29, 2013. Available at  https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms2380.

[12] See Karla Adam, Cat War Breaks Out in New Zealand, The Washington Post, May 14, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/cat-wars-break-out-in-new-zealand/2013/05/13/3b044fee-b971-11e2-b94c-b684dda07add_story.html?utm_term=.c837830568dc. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See id.

[16] See id.

[17] See Ishaan Tharoor, Austrailia Actually Declares ‘War’ on cats, plans to kill 2 million by 2020, The Washington Post, July 16, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/07/16/australia-actually-declares-war-on-cats-plans-to-kill-2-million-by-2020/?utm_term=.1e3bfd123313. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[18] See id.

[19] See Charlotte Graham-Mclay, New Zealand Town May Ban Cats to Protect Other Species, The N.Y. Times, Aug. 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/30/world/australia/new-zealand-cat-ban-birds.html. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[20] See id.

[21] See Karin Brulliard, New Zealand Vows to Kill Every Weasel, Rat and Feral Cat on its Soil, The Washington Post, July 25, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/07/25/new-zealand-plans-to-kill-every-weasel-rat-and-feral-cat-on-its-soil/?utm_term=.5f19bd368099. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[22] See id.

[23] See Pets, N.Z. Ministry for Primary Indus., https://www.mpi.govt.nz/importing/live-animals/pets/. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[24] Id.

[25] See, e.g., Controlling Your Dog in Public, Gov.UK, https://www.gov.uk/control-dog-public/banned-dogs. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).

[26] See, e.g., R. Scott Nolen, The Dangerous Dog Debate, J. of Am. Veterinary Med., Nov. 01, 2017. Available at https://www.avma.org/news/javmanews/pages/171115a.aspx.

[27] See Damian Carrington, Pangolins Thrown a Lifeline at Global Wildlife Summit with Total Trade Ban, The Guardian, Sept. 28, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/28/pangolins-thrown-a-lifeline-at-global-wildlife-summit-with-total-trade-ban. (last visited Nov. 03, 2018).