New Zealand Town May Ban Cats to Protect Other Species

By guest author Charlotte Graham-McLay from the New York Times.

The proposed ban would impose a sunset clause for cats in Omaui, meaning that once a cat died, its owners would not be allowed to replace it. If the policy is approved, cat owners will have six months to register existing cats with the regional council and have them microchipped and neutered.

After the six-month grace period, no new felines would be permitted — and families moving to the area would have to get rid of their cats first. Those ignoring the policy would be encouraged to send their cats away from Omaui, with seizure of cats by the council a last resort.

The proposal is part of a pest control plan that lays out protection measures against 72 predators.

Ali Meade, the regional council’s biosecurity and biodiversity manager, said cats posed real risks to New Zealand’s unique fauna, which had “evolved in isolation from mammals.”

New Zealand’s status as an island nation that became home to mammals only once settlers arrived made its birds and reptiles “much more vulnerable” to predation than species in other countries, Ms. Meade said.

“They grew up with strange ways of living, like birds that nest on the ground and can’t fly; really naïve behaviours,” she said.

Cats’ often secretive nighttime hunting behavior means the regional council is not certain how much carnage they are responsible for. Still, Ms. Meade said, “extensive research” elsewhere in New Zealand showed the damage cats caused.

The council said that decade-old rules about microchipping and neutering cats on nearby Stewart Island had helped protect New Zealand’s most famous native bird, the kiwi. The normally shy flightless birds were now regular visitors to the island’s settlement.

Even if Omaui’s cats are not particularly savage, the council said, they are a concern because of the notable richness of the area’s wildlife.

“I’ll have 30 birds on my bird feeder at one time; some of them are almost my friends,” said John Collins, the chairman of Omaui Landcare Trust, the community group petitioning the council to institute the cat ban.

The trust has spent the last few years trying to rid the town of pests — including weasels, possums and ferrets — and encourage rare native birds to flock back to Omaui. The council predicted insects and lizards would shortly return too.

“Cats habitually kill things; they’re hunters, it’s not their fault,” said Mr. Collins, who added that he was “not a cat hater.”

“We just live in a high-value conservation area,” he said.

But Mr. Dean, the local resident, said that the community had not been properly consulted about the proposal, and that divisions over it had made things in the town “a bit awkward.”

During his 35 years living in Omaui, Mr. Dean has always kept a cat, and he did not relish the thought of Mr. Whiskers — his current pet — becoming his last.

“Once you lose the cats, you’ve lost the ability to control the nasties in the bush,” he said. “They do a marvelous job keeping the rodent population under control.”

The town’s 35 residents have eight weeks to give feedback to the regional council on the proposal.

The country has long wrestled with how to protect its native fauna from felines, and it aims by 2050 to exterminate all rats and other introduced predators in the wild.

A millionaire economist, Gareth Morgan, who made a failed bid for Parliament during New Zealand’s last election, kicked off a campaign in 2013 calling for the entire country to become cat-free. The largest city, Auckland, is considering a plan to euthanize cats without microchips that are found in protected wildlife sites.

New Zealand has identified 150 critically endangered species as a priority for protecting, according to the news site Stuff. They include an entire leech population living under a single rock, and a type of lizard found only on a patch of land behind a small-town pub.