The problem with the natural world isn’t the animals. It’s the bloody people.
That’s true whether one is talking about rhino poaching – a tragedy resulting from mankind’s worst instincts – or at the apparently benign end of the scale, about pet lovers – who collectively are a morass of irrational sentimentality. With the best of intentions, but actually because humanity’s default settings are narcissism, selfishness and arrogance, we consistently and perversely embark on actions that destroy the natural world we claim to cherish.
Take cat ownership. Striking from the suburban boudoirs where they’ve been ensconced since colonising humans, cats wreak havoc on wildlife.
As New Zealand environmentalist Gareth Morgan puts it, “That little ball of fluff you own is a natural born serial killer.” His Cats To Go campaign for the eventual total eradication of cats from the island nation has not only made him the target of local cat lovers, but has caused international ripples.
Morgan’s thesis is that in urban areas, NZ’s cats are wiping out native birds faster than they can breed. Cats have contributed handsomely to the extinction of nine NZ bird species and impact seriously on 33 others. Already, 40% of NZ’s indigenous bird species are extinct, largely because of cats.
The battle between birders and cat owners is long-standing and world wide. A few years ago a Durban lawyer was arrested for shooting his neighbour’s cat, which had been preying on wild birds in his garden. And acclaimed writer Jonathan Franzen recently brought the plight of American birdlife – 3.7 billion birds killed annually by cats – to the public eye with his novel, Freedom, where the mild-mannered and normally law-abiding Walter kills a neighbour’s cat for the same reason.
It’s not only about birds, though. According to Morgan, the average cat kills 65 creatures a year and NZ research shows that one feral cat can kill over 100 short-tailed bats in a week.
Those figures are on the conservative side. Recent National Geographic research shows that the average cat kills more than twice a week, cutting a bloody swathe through the wild, including lizards, voles, chipmunks, birds, frogs and snakes. Cape Town’s moggies annually annihilate about six million indigenous mice, shrews, squirrels, golden moles, geckos, snakes and other small animals, as well as seven million birds, according to University of Cape Town research of a few years ago.
These are domestic cats – killing not to survive but driven by instinct – and we can probably assume that feral cats, deprived as they are of regular tins of Pamper, are worse.
So is it time to let the hound dogs loose? Despite the vitriol that Morgan has elicited in what is the highest per capita cat-owning nation in the world, his solutions are hardly outré. Bell your cats and keep them inside; neuter them and don’t replace them when they die.
More controversially, he wants animal welfare organisations like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to stop their trap, neuter and release (TNR) programmes, which, he argues, are utter failures. So from this week, to much sibilance from the kitty-cat corner, Morgan is offering a $5 bounty for every free-ranging domestic cat euthanised at a registered facility.
Morgan has further upped the ante. He wants people to stop donating to the SPCA unless its abandons the futile TNR programmes. The SPCA are ”environmental bandits”, he says, who care not for indigenous animals, ”nor for the cruelty inflicted on them by the pests they are introducing”.
Morgan’s argument is compelling, even to a lifelong cat lover. In an ideal world, Darwinian imperatives would eventually ensure some kind of species balance. Cats would prey but also be preyed upon in turn. Because of domestication, that does not happen.
Where Morgan is wrong, is thinking this is a feline problem. It’s not. It’s a Homo sapiens problem.
It’s we who screw it up with our interference and our mawkishness and our own ceaseless breeding. We are the plague, we are the rats. It is humanity that needs to be curbed, controlled and, preferably, neutered. And then all good things will follow.