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New Zealand town suggests banning cats to save native birds

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This week, the New Zealand town of Omaui suggested banning cats to save the native birds. Though cat-lovers are unhappy, the suggestion isn’t as ridiculous as it seems at first glance.

First, there are no plans to kill existing pets. Specifically, Omaui councilmembers want owners to neuter, register, and microchip their animals. Fair enough. Then, they’ll be allowed to live out their natural life. But then when they die, that’s it. Residents won’t be allowed to get a new cat to replace the old one, but Garfield is safe so long as he lives.

Second, there’s a good reason for this policy. Cats kill birds, and sometimes those birds are endangered. As John Collins, a member of the Omaui Landcare Charitable Trust who suggests the ban put it: “We’re not cat-haters, but we want our environment to be wildlife-rich.”

Of course, many local residents and cat-owning residents are displeased. Some say that they feel “hoodwinked” and others add that they need the cats to get rid of other rodents. “It’s like a police state,” Omaui resident Nico Jarvis told the Otago Daily Times. “If I cannot have a cat, it almost becomes unhealthy for me to live in my house.” Jarvis added she wouldn’t follow the rules anyway. (According to the proposal, people who don’t follow the rules will receive warnings and then, ominously, the cat would be removed at the cost of the owner.)

It’s fair to be concerned about rodents, but if they’re truly making an area unlivable, that seems like a health problem that the local government should be dealing with, not something that relies on cats to fix. It’s also understandable to be unhappy about this suggestion, but it’s hardly a police state to suggest a trade-off that would support the more vulnerable animal population.

As Laura Helmuth pointed out at Slate, cats are a globally invasive species that hunt and hurt native animals everywhere. But this does more harm on islands like New Zealand that are homes to animals that can’t be found in other places. Already, cats in New Zealand have killed off nine native species of birds and are endangering 33 more. Given that the world’s biodiversity has already declined beyond safe levels, and that Omaui is a “high-value” conservation area, the needs of the native animals might need to come first. And other pets are, of course, still allowed.

This isn’t the first proposal of its kind, either. Back in 2013, New Zealand economist Gareth Morgan suggested this very plan under the campaign name “Cats to Go.” But now, a town is suggesting that it should become the rule. Earlier this year, Auckland was looking at a similar plan. It wanted to put down cats that were caught in “ecologically significant sites” without a microchip, which seems even harsher. Residents have until October 23rd to submit their opinions on this new plan.