I began writing about solutions to the cat problem by suggesting conservationists appeal to cat owners’ self-interest and the health and well-being of cats so that increasingly cats are de-sexed and indoors, especially from before dusk to after dawn.
Solutions will be more widely adopted and permanent if they make sense to cat owners for reasons other than just the protection of native wildlife. De-sexed domestic cats free-roaming less often and wearing collars with bells or bibs when they are, however, is unlikely to entirely solve the problem. Some owners will be intransigent and some negligent. Not all owners care all that much, even about their cat – hence the need for organisations like the SPCA.
Nevertheless, this initial approach by conservationists will open a positive dialogue with cat owners towards other solutions that will require that cat lovers also look beyond their own interests. The dialogue will allow us to solve the more intractable problem that unwanted kittens will still be born, and cats will still be lost or abandoned to become strays in our neighbourhoods and feral in wilderness.
Unfortunately, the problem is not helped by the legal definitions of domestic, stray and feral cats in New Zealand. The definitions are blurred in ways that prevent a reduction in stray and feral cats in places where people live . The problem arises because stray cats in human-dominated environments are not legally defined as feral, although they have the same effect on native wildlife in city reserves, parks and gardens as a feral cat in wilderness.
And unfortunately, stray cats are common. Large populations form in our cities – sometimes near biodiversity sanctuaries . I believe, therefore, that economically, socially and ecologically effective management of the cat problem requires improved policy and regulation of the domestic cat in New Zealand. Owner or cat registration and identification (like mandatory microchip implants) would assist in demarcating domestic from stray cats and, therefore, stray cat management. Legislation to more clearly distinguish the domestic from stray cat and to empower local authorities to control stray cats is necessary.
Some places where we live are more valuable to native wildlife than others and biodiversity sanctuaries and their wildlife require greater protection from cats. The expectation that if you allow your cat to stray into such special places it can be caught and euthanized is reasonable encouragement for cat owners to manage their cats’ behaviour – in the same way that domestic dogs killing kiwi in National Parks are reasonably euthanized. ‘No Cat Zones’, or at least no out-of-door cats, may also be reasonably expected around such special places. No cat neighbourhoods which provide a 1.2 km buffer to our cities’ wild places are likely to develop in the near future – 2.4 km buffer zones in rural areas .
I reserve the last word to speak on behalf of cat owners who, in a recent survey, demonstrated that they largely de-sex their cats already (92% in Auckland) and are not just cat lovers but lovers of all wildlife. Cat owners expressed stronger conservation values than non-cat owners . As conservationists we need to harness the conservation ethic of cat owners and appeal to their values. Many cat owners will support better legal and regulatory management of cats, even if the few noisy ones do not. Conservationists should appeal to the majority of responsible cat owners with conservation values to, necessarily, divide-and-rule.
1 Farnworth, M.J., et al. (2010) The Legal Status of Cats in New Zealand: A Perspective on the Welfare of Companion, Stray, and Feral Domestic Cats (Felis catus). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 13, 180-188