Out in the bush beyond his house, John McConnell walks with his gun, looking for the glint of eyes in the darkness.
McConnell, 67, lives outside Auckland and spends much of his time planting native trees on this block of land, trying to restore parts of it to their original state to draw back the chorus of native birds. At night, he heads out to hunt the predators that threaten them: possums, rats, and these days, any un-collared feline unlucky enough to end up in his sights.
“I shoot them,” says McConnell. “Seriously. If it’s a cat and I know whose it is, I’ll leave it. But if it’s a stray cat – it’s a gonner,” he says. “Even if it’s domestic and it’s out at night, I’m getting to the point where I’d shoot those as well, because they shouldn’t be out.”
McConnell is not a dyed-in-the-wool cat hater. Not so long ago, his family had cats of their own. “I said to my wife: when they’re gone, we’d better not replace them,” he says. “Because it’s just not cricket any more.”
He is among a growing number of New Zealanders – many of them one-time feline owners – who are ending their love affair with cats, driven by concerns over their devastating impact on Aotearoa’s native wildlife.
The country has had one of the world’s highest rates for cat ownership per capita, with close to half of households owning one. New Zealand is more than seven years into one of the world’s most ambitious pest-eradication regimes, aiming to eliminate all possums, rats, stoats and ferrets by 2050. As attempts to wipe out those less sympathetic targets roll on, however, other animals are coming under the spotlight, including the family moggie. With more than 2 million feral cats, and about 1.4 million domestic ones across New Zealand, they are believed to be collectively responsible for huge numbers of attacks on native birdlife.
“I definitely hear more and more people either tell me they’re a reformed cat owner, or that the cat they currently owned will be their last,” says Jessi Morgan, who leads conservation organisation Predator Free NZ. “Our attitude towards cats, and what responsible pet ownership means is really changing.”
For some New Zealanders, that means their days as cat-owners are over. “My wife and I love cats, but we will never have another one,” says Tony White, an estate agent in Pauanui. When they farewelled their last cat 15 years ago, he noticed how birds and native lizards began to reclaim the garden. Now, he says, “We have rare birds walking past our living room and nesting in our garden – kiwi live in the patch of scrub at the back of our house. They would not be there if we had a cat.”
“We love cats, but New Zealanders may have to choose whether we want cats or birds.”
Cat ownership falls
According to national pet ownership surveys conducted by Companion Animals New Zealand, the portion of New Zealand households that own cats has been dropping slowly buy steadily over the last decade – from almost half (48%) of households owning a cat in 2011, to 41% by 2020. According to CANZ data, the number of domestic cats in the country has dropped by about 200,000 – despite the population of people, or potential owners, growing by more than 800,000. Part of that shift is likely driven by changing population demographics, including increasing numbers of renters who may not have permission to keep a pet. But a number of New Zealanders who previously owned cats say their view of the animals has shifted.
“I have owned cats most of my life, many of which simply wandered in and adopted us,” says Simon Damerell, a retiree in Auckland. Now, he and his partner have decided not to own a cat again – seeing cat-ownership as simply “incompatible with our strong interest in promoting birdlife into the city”.
“Cats, though adorable and loving, are in essence bird killing machines,” he says.
Others – like McConnell – favour a stronger approach, arguing that domestic cats should be kept inside and feral cats euthanised. This year, the debate over cat control was again propelled into the headlines after a South Island hunting competition promised children prizes for shooting feral cats – and raised complaints from animal rights activists.
“It’s not considered neighbourly to shoot your neighbour’s cat,” says Joe Citizen, an educator based in the Waikato. “But I do think that it’s time to have a serious national conversation about them.”
Native birds thriving
Part of the shift in attitudes toward cats may actually be driven by the recovery in New Zealand’s native fauna, says Morgan. Cities like Wellington have seen huge recovery in native bird numbers, after establishing large urban bird sanctuaries that have seeded populations around the city. As those rare native birds increasingly make their way into people’s back yards, they’re also coming into contact with their cats – and owners are being more directly confronted with their pets’ predation.
“It’s showing up on hotspots like Wellington where the biodiversity is really starting to thrive and come back into the city and the places that we live,” Morgan says. “People are confronted with their cats bringing tīeke [saddlebacks] in through the catdoor or kererū, or fantails – and suddenly that’s quite confronting for a cat owner.”
Aaron Lavack, of Wellington, lives near the city’s belt of forest. “It’s been a joy to see it slowly recolonised by native birds,” he says, especially the playful native kaka [parrots] that would have been a rarity a decade earlier. But the birds’ return also throws a spotlight on the cats that kill them. “Sadly, lately I’ve started to see kaka that have been killed by local cats; making the conflict between the two clearer,” Lavack said. “My young daughter has started to ask for a pet cat, but instead I’m getting a quote to have our cat-door sealed up.”
Other bird lovers have watched their own pets wreak havoc on local birdlife – despite their efforts to rein in their hunting instincts. Michael Christoffel, who also lives in Wellington, remembers trying to fit the household cat with a bell to stop it hunting. “Almost immediately he killed two fantails,” he says. “We added another bell. It made no difference. All native birds disappeared – I hope they flew off.” When the cat died, they didn’t replace it. “We now have a family of tūī [birds] who clack, rattle and trill in our small back yard almost every day,” he says. “Anyone who thinks their cat is not killing things outside is fooling themselves.”
Tamsin Orr Walker, of Kea Conservation Trust, says feral cats are a far greater threat to native birds than many owners realise. The trust has cameras set up monitoring kea nests and foraging sites – and recorded cats not only hunting chicks in nests, but occasionally taking on and killing the adult birds – large parrots, of up to 48cm and weighing around a kilogram. “We just need to rethink what our attitudes are to cats and to our wildlife as well,” Orr Walker says.
“If we want them to continue into the future and for our children and our children’s children to enjoy seeing our native birds flying around and native bats and reptiles then we need to seriously and urgently address this issue.”
Orr Walker is one of those advocating for New Zealand’s government to step in with stronger regulation of cat ownership. This month, parliament’s environmental select committee backed a proposal to introduce compulsory microchipping.
And, as New Zealanders become more involved in national volunteer initiatives to trap other pests, they’re confronted on trap cameras with images of cats showing up on the hunt.
Dugald Wilson, of Christchurch, is one of those who has carried out volunteer trapping – and found that the trap cameras were regularly picking up cats. “When our neighbours have a cat the bird song is quietened – we find feathers of bellbirds, piwakawaka, and other birds,” he says.
“I like cats – and we have had three as pets, but no more.”