Our love affair with cats
Cats provide comfort, companionship and connection to the wild. Nearly half of all New Zealand households include a feline member. But now the country is at a crossroads—should we introduce stronger rules governing how we look after our most beloved companion animal?
I was at work when my wife sent me a photo of two kittens in a pet store in the Auckland suburb of Morningside. We’d been half-looking for a while, driven by some unnameable feeling that I would later learn, after the birth of my first child, was probably a nesting impulse.
One of the cats was black and white, the other tortoiseshell. The store preferred they were adopted together, because the girl, Lanai, was timid. They thought she wouldn’t be happy without her more confident, protective older brother, Benny.
We took them both.
I promptly devoted much of my existence to making them happy. Early in the morning I’d tiptoe into their room and sit with them curled on my knee until it was time to go to work. It was almost revelatory to experience the contentment that comes with keeping another living being in your care.
In adopting our kittens, we were hardly alone. Few countries have more cats per person than New Zealand. About 44 per cent of our households have adopted at least one feline companion. Some have become celebrities. The nation mourned en masse when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s polydactyl pet, Paddles, was run over in 2017. Mittens, a wandering Turkish angora in central Wellington, has garnered widespread acclaim for his habit of trespassing in shops, homes and managed isolation facilities across the capital. More than 60,000 people have joined a Facebook group dedicated to tracking Mittens’ movements. He has been nominated for New Zealander of the Year by Kiwibank.
But this love is one without limits. We let our affection for our feline companions blind us to the damage they cause. Where other countries, such as Australia, have regional by-laws to control cats, New Zealand is a patchwork of lax or non-existent rules. Although conservationists and animal welfare experts have been calling for sensible cat management laws for years, there has been little real action taken to address the impact they have on our environment.
The movement for a national cat by-law started in earnest with Gareth Morgan. In 2013, the Wellington economist told every reporter who would listen that cats were “serial killers” and “nature’s only sadists”. His spiel was carried by the Herald under the headline “Morgan calls for cats to be wiped out”. Morgan was trying to raise the profile of his campaign, Cats to Go, which he says was inspired by conversations with Department of Conservation (DOC) workers about the destruction cats were causing on Rakiura/Stewart Island.
“I asked them why they don’t run a campaign against cats,” says Morgan. “They said, ‘No no, they’re New Zealand’s most loved animal.’ I said, ‘Well I’ll do it. I don’t care.’”
Cats to Go’s aim was to ensure cats were registered and kept indoors—not to wipe them out. That didn’t stop the hate mail and death threats. Morgan chuckles as he remembers the fallout. The day after his spiel went to print, he and his wife, Joanne, boarded a plane to China. Soon after landing, they went to the Huangpu River and opened the Shanghai Daily. “There it was on page one: ‘Downunder economist wants to kill all cats’,” he says. “I said to Jo, ‘How’s that for cut-through?’”
It’s tempting to look back on Morgan’s campaign as an embarrassing defeat. He’s used as a punchline in jokes on television comedy shows. TOP—the political party he founded, fought with, then quit—ran ads in the 2020 election with the tagline “There’s no cat policy—no kitten”. But Helen Beattie, chief veterinary officer at the New Zealand Veterinary Association (NZVA), credits Morgan with getting people thinking about cat control. “I talked to someone recently about how change happens and they said an initiator starts a conversation. It gets the first bit of attention,” she says. “Gareth was the initiator of a pretty inflammatory conversation, but actually what he wanted was what we want as well.”
Beattie is a member of the National Cat Management Strategy Group, which formed in 2014 after a small cluster of animal experts met with Morgan about his campaign. “They were trying to shut me up,” Morgan says. His daughter Jessi Morgan, who leads the Predator Free New Zealand Trust, is more diplomatic. “I think in terms of raising the profile of the issue, Gareth was good. Now we’re in damage control. You get that publicity, and then you try to make it a reasonable conversation.”
Even if it started as an effort to shut Morgan up, the strategy group has become a political force. Its members include the NZVA, the Royal New Zealand Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) and DOC signing on as technical advisors. The group recently issued an updated strategy that makes 13 recommendations, including a call for a National Cat Management Act to replace our current hodgepodge collection of council by-laws. The group wants to bring the country into line with parts of Australia, where there are limits on the number of cats people can own, and penalties for allowing them to roam unhindered. In the state of Victoria, cat microchipping is compulsory and cats can be seized and impounded if found wandering off their property. Ultimately, the group envisions a future where there are no stray or feral cats, and every companion cat is either kept inside or contained on a property. If its proposals are accepted, it would mean the most significant reform to companion animal management since the Dog Control Act 1996.
The most surprising thing about the cat management debate in New Zealand isn’t the division it inspires but the consensus. Arnja Dale, chief science officer at the SPCA, says just about every credible animal welfare organisation and conservation group in the country is on the same page about the need for reform. Everyone, from Dale to the people at LGNZ, recognises cats are causing harm, whether by bird predation or their tendency to spread the toxoplasmosis parasite, which has been linked to schizophrenia and foetal death in humans, and blamed for the deaths of Māui and Hector’s dolphins.
All these organisations think our current rules are untenable. They speak of the “cat-shaped hole” in the government’s Predator Free 2050 strategy. “It’s a very emotional issue, but it’s not a controversial issue,” says Dale. “There is widespread agreement. It’s just that people have a very emotional response around cats.” These groups might not label cats as serial killers, or nature’s only sadists, but to some extent they agree with Gareth Morgan.
Soon after getting our kittens, we discovered a problem: Lanai hated using the litter box. We set up clean ones around the house, and spent our nights tipping out lightly soiled litter. Still, we’d wake up to the wafting smell of cat urine.
When I interviewed animal behaviour specialist Mark Vette for a story, I seized on the chance to ask him how to stop my house smelling like an oversized cat toilet. But he didn’t have any advice. He just said I’d have to let the cats go outside.
Banded dotterel eggs are hard to see, moulded by evolution to blend into the rocks of their seashore nesting sites. There are three eggs in the centre of the photo Parker Jones brings up on the television screen at his Eastbourne home. Their camouflage is impressive. The only clue they’re in frame is a pair of glowing eyes in the backdrop of the shot, staring at them.
The next shot shows the owner of those eye, a cat, slinking into the picture. It’s big, with a tabby coat. “That’s domestic,” says Jones. The cat is well fed. Its coat is shiny. Most tellingly, its ears are intact, free of the deep gouging feral cats incur in scraps over food and territory.
The cat sniffs one of the eggs, hunches over the nest, and starts chewing. It rips one shell apart, then wanders back off into the night, leaving the other two eggs intact. The chicks’ mother, who Jones identifies by the code on her coloured leg tag, PCCF, soon returns to find the remains of the egg. She picks up the broken pieces of its shell, and carries them away from her remaining two eggs.
More photos show this scene repeating over the next two nights. The cat eats an egg on each visit. On the final night—October 27, 2018—the mother returns to an empty nest.
Jones has been monitoring the banded dotterel nests on the Eastbourne shoreline for the last three years, as part of his work with the Mainland Island Restoration Operation (MIRO). He’s never seen a chick survive to adulthood. In 2018, 12 nests failed, including the one destroyed by the tabby. Two sets of eggs hatched, but none of the chicks made it. A similar scenario played out the following year. Eggs only hatched at five of 17 nests. All the chicks died before they
Banded dotterel are also hunted by karoro/black-backed gulls. But only one predator has been caught on camera eating chicks in Eastbourne.
In 2019, Jones’s photos show another domestic cat attacking a nest. This time, a cage has been set up around the eggs. The cat waits for the chicks’ mother to flee, then uses the cage as a springboard to swipe at the adult bird.
Jones shuts down the slideshow, and his own cat, Oreo, walks over and nudges his legs. They’ve had Oreo for 14 years. “I love my cat,” says Parker. “He gives me a lot of joy. These are beautiful companions. But I think somehow we have to learn how we can cohabitate with them without this killing.”
The first bird Benny brought in was still alive, though injured. I pried it off him and put it in the garage. Once the cats fell asleep I crept back out to the garden and freed it. I found its dismembered remains the following morning.
After that, the birds arrived in a macabre parade. There were tortured squawks at night, trails of feathers across the lounge. We fitted Benny with a bell. He learned to stalk with it on. For a while he wore a kind of colourful Victorian ruff, which only made him look more jolly as he slaughtered.
Some birds were barely clinging to life. I would bang them on the head with a spade and tip the corpses into the wheelie bin.
Through all this, I at least had one consolation: the cats had never brought in a native bird.
On the outskirts of Kaikōura, Ailsa Howard is learning why a consensus among conservation groups may not be enough to drive cat management reform. A domestic cat has been preying on the banded dotterel at South Bay. It’s killed five birds in the last year, and has possibly taken out penguins. She knows exactly which cat is responsible. She recognises it from the trail cameras because she has cat-sat for its owner. Despite that, she has struggled to convince the owner to keep the cat inside. “I’ve really worked so hard with this guy, who in a way is a friend,” she says. “He just truly believes that the cat should hunt.”
Howard is almost in tears over the impact that this cat and others like it are having on a banded dotterel nesting site near her home in South Bay. It’s mid-October and a bird she’s been tracking for years through her self-funded project, the Banded Dotterel Study, has just been killed. RLBB was nesting in an exposed area. Howard had been expecting the loss. But it still hurt to see footage of the bird in a cat’s jaws. She’s thinking over what she might have done differently, whether she should have put RLBB’s chicks in a sanctuary. “In the end we just had to let nature take its course,” she says.
Her voice cracks. “There is a very significant fine for killing a native animal. But you can do it for free if you do it with a cat.”
Howard’s frustration goes deeper than just the loss of RLBB. She’s seen many of the birds she’s studied die. In 2020, 15 of the 22 nests she tracked failed, with many of them falling victim to feral and domestic cats. She spends hours researching legal avenues to stop the attacks, days putting together fruitless presentations on the need for Kaikōura District Council to implement tougher cat by-laws. Nearly every effort she’s made so far has been futile. Few people, whether politicians or Kaikōura locals, are willing to make the changes she believes will protect the dotterel at South Bay.
“This ongoing frustration, this absolute despair I have, is at being unable to manage this problem. This recognition we aren’t managing this problem locally or nationally. That’s the unbearable thing for me.”
That legislative paralysis around cat control has many authors. One of the most influential is Sir Bob Kerridge, the former executive director of the Auckland SPCA, and Gareth Morgan’s most vociferous opponent back in 2013. Kerridge still believes cats have been singled out for “persecution”, and questions the studies on their kill rates. His philosophy is partly grounded in the utopian idea that all animals should live together in harmony. He opposes using poisons like 1080 to control pests, and bristles at the idea of inflicting suffering for the greater good. “Being introduced doesn’t make an animal evil, doesn’t make it wrong,” he says. “Conservation is never a question of killing.”
That stance is well intentioned but unscientific. “A lot of people say things like, ‘Cats are part of the food chain. They’re part of the natural ecosystem,’” says Yolanda van Heezik, a University of Otago researcher. “It makes me want to tear my eyes out, because of course they’re not. Our native animals have evolved in the absence of any predators, so they have absolutely no defences against them.”
As van Heezik explains, our native birds smell delicious and live on the ground. They can’t live in harmony with a predator that hunts by scent.
Kerridge has lent heft to the anti-cat-control lobby, but he isn’t the only obstacle to reform. According to DOC’s threatened species ambassador Erica Wilkinson, one of her biggest challenges is getting everyday cat owners to understand the harm their pets may be causing. “It’s the constant response you get: ‘Not my cat. Tootles wouldn’t do that.’ Cats only bring home up to 25 per cent of what they hunt. Some don’t bring anything home. But they’re natural hunters and they’re incredibly good at it.”
So-called kitty-cam studies, where cameras are placed on domestic cats, confirm what Wilkinson says, showing cats only bring home between 23 and 33 per cent of what they kill. They can do a huge amount of damage in a short space of time. In 2010, one feral cat killed 102 native short-tailed bats in the space of seven days. Another cat was found with 17 undigested skinks in its gut at Kaitorete Spit in Canterbury.
“They’re one of the top predators in our ecosystem but we often don’t realise what skilled predators they are,” says Wilkinson. “We know to keep our dogs on a leash on the beach, but we have this weird out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing with cats.”
Many cat owners bristle at any criticism of their beloved pets, even if it’s well researched. When journalist Paul Ward made the case for cat control in The Listener in August 2016, he was inundated with reader feedback. One correspondent sent a photo of a kitten with a speech bubble saying, “Chill out bird brain, and get in touch with your inner kitty.”
The advocacy group Feline Rights New Zealand is vitriolic over any hint of increased cat control. “What is antifelinism? It’s similar to antisemitism,” says a blurb on the homepage of its website. “Antifelinism is about eradicating an entire species, the most noble of species, the Cat.” Our love for cats runs deep. It can also get really toxic.
That toxicity has made it hard for The National Cat Management Strategy Group to find supporters in Parliament. The group’s strongest ally is the former conservation minister Eugenie Sage, who is urging the new Labour Government to look seriously at a national cat management law. “We need a better framework for cat management and that’s why I commend the group’s work,” she says.
But Sage is an outlier, and no longer in a position of power. It’s no accident that New Zealand’s most popular politicians have stood in the way of meaningful change on cat control. Former prime minister John Key publicly rebuked then conservation minister Maggie Barry for demanding tougher measures to get rid of stray cats in 2015. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been silent on the topic. These politicians are nervous about championing legislation with such divisive potential. “All of them know cats are a highly emotive issue,” says Dale. “So it’s difficult to touch, especially given we only have three-year terms.”
Politicians aren’t just afraid of dissenting voices like Kerridge. They’re scared of upsetting the Kaikōura cat owner, the writer who urged Ward to get in touch with his inner kitty, the thousands of people who don’t want to change.
One clear winter morning, I heard shuffling downstairs. By the time I got out of bed to investigate, the cats were gone, leaving behind only a mess of feathers and a few splotches of blood. I followed the trail to a corpse inside our wicker basket. It looked like a blackbird at first. But on its wings there was a familiar iridescent blue-green. The bird’s head lolled back as I scooped it out onto the carpet. Under its beak, there were the white filament feathers of a tūī.
The people who bristle at the idea of increased cat control aren’t stupid. They aren’t necessarily even wrong when they insist the benefits of cats outweigh the harm they cause. In grief, a cat can be a comfort. In good times, it can be a friend. For kids, a cat can be a teacher, imparting lessons about how to care for others, and sometimes about the importance of not grabbing an animal. In old age, it can be a companion when others have gone.
It’s telling that most of the people calling for cat control have cats themselves. Jones has Oreo. Beattie posts regularly on social media about her elderly cat, Mangu. Even Morgan kept cats when his family was young. None of them are suffering from antifelinism.
On the night after Benny killed that tūī, he curled up in bed as usual, hugging his sister. He may have been a killer, but I loved him in spite of that.
The dilemma of owning a cat can be seen as the dilemma of modern life, writ small and feline. It’s hard to travel without pumping carbon into our overheating atmosphere. Even if you only buy fruit and vegetables, you’re likely still contributing to habitat loss. Some damage is unavoidable if you want to get to work on time, to eat something nutritious, to live.
This world can be unforgiving. A cat can make it feel a little softer. The price may be a few birds. For many of us, it seems worth the cost.
But it’s a false trade-off—the problems cats cause may be distant and invisible, but their roaming harms us and the places we live, even if we can’t see the damage they’re causing.
Just off Karangahape Road in central Auckland, Mikey Brenndorfer and Romelli Rodriguez-Jolly are taking care of four cats: Skatepark, Panthor, Battlekatt and Skeletor. They are unlikely cat owners. Both are vegan, but Rodriguez-Jolly says they decided to take on four carnivores after travelling to Brenndorfer’s home country, Canada, and reading a pamphlet about how cats are happier and safer indoors.
“It was really fascinating seeing the rhetoric that if you have outdoor cats you’re an irresponsible cat owner,” says Rodriguez-Jolly. “It’s the exact reverse to New Zealand. I had really sad moments growing up, with cats getting killed on the road. I was like, ‘Oh, that makes sense to me.’”
They adopted Skatepark first, after finding her injured and abandoned in an empty Steinlager box in Tāneatua. Skeletor came next, to keep Skatepark company. The other two arrived after Brenndorfer encountered them in a pet store. No one had adopted them, they were getting older, and Brenndorfer felt a wave of guilt and worry over their fate.
The cats have never left the couple’s 55-square-metre apartment. They flinch when the door is opened. Though Kerridge and others insist cats are happiest when they’re allowed outdoors, Brenndorfer says their quartet are content in their compact space. He and Rodriguez-Jolly have decorated the walls with colourful objects and set up climbing posts in the bedrooms.
“They’re comfortable. They have a really safe and secure territory. Their boundaries are really clearly defined,” he says.
For Rodriguez-Jolly, the cats are a stabilising force. “I call them my therapists. I just feel like things make more sense with them around.”
For an animal welfarist like the SPCA’s Arnja Dale, Rodriguez-Jolly and Brenndorfer’s house is a glimpse of the potential future of cat ownership.
She outlines her vision: “All cats on laps. All responsibly owned. All microchipped. All desexed. All of them registered. All of them are happy stay-at-home cats.”
“We set ourselves a goal that we’d like to achieve that by 2030. I’d still like to think we can achieve that but it really depends on political will.”
That can seem daunting, but van Heezik points out that something similar has already happened with another type of pet. “When I was a kid in the 1970s, virtually all our pets were killed by other people’s dogs coming onto our property,” she says. “It never occurred to us to complain about it, because people’s dogs just wandered. Our attitudes have completely shifted now, but it took a while, and I’m just thinking that we’re on the same journey with cats.”
In Eastbourne, that cultural revolution is playing out in miniature. After the disappointments of the last few years, Jones and the MIRO team decided to distribute flyers around the neighbourhood. On one side, they detailed the dangers local cats pose to banded dotterel. On the other they gave tips on how to keep cats happy and safe inside.
Their work seems to be paying off. Jones hasn’t lost any birds this season. All six nests have hatched. Every chick and adult bird has survived. Most importantly, cameras haven’t picked up cats stalking the nests.
In late October, Jones sent me a photo from the shoreline in Eastbourne. It captures three fluffy dotterel chicks sheltering in a nest of rocks and driftwood. In past years, they would’ve been dead by now. If there’s a lesson in Eastbourne, it’s that change is possible, with a quick twist of the lock on the cat door and a small adjustment in our assumptions. And, if there’s a lesson in Brenndorfer and Rodriguez-Jolly’s inner-city apartment, it’s that change doesn’t even have to come at a cost. Our cats and their owners might both be happier in the long run.
One thing we know. Change will come with a reward: those chicks, curled up on a windswept shoreline, with no glowing eyes in the back of the shot.