Gareth Morgan, a prominent economist and environmental advocate from New Zealand, made headlines around the world this week due to a controversial campaign he launched.
"Cats To Go", a campaign and website launched by Morgan this week, calls on New Zealanders to gradually phase out cat ownership. Perhaps it sounds silly, but it is no joke: the opening line on the website is "That little ball of fluff you own is a natural born killer."
New Zealand boasts some of the highest cat ownership rates in the world, but Morgan argues that the cats pose too much of a threat to the country's unique wildlife. Instead, Morgan says owners should sterilize their cats, and make sure their current pets are their last.
Animal rights groups have criticized the plan, while much of the online world appears shocked that the internet's favorite animal could be so hated.
However, others have come out in support. For example, yesterday, Laura Helmuth at Slate wrote a widely-shared article explaining why Morgan is right, and cats are evil. "If we give up or at least contain our cats," Helmuth writes, "wild animals will have more of a chance."
We reached out to Morgan via email to ask a few more questions.
What prompted you to begin the campaign?
Being told of the damage done by feral cats on Stewart Island and then that being reinforced from information forwarded by other ecological island projects around NZ. That prompted me to inquire further, to do a literature search, assimilate all the relevant international research I could find, create the website and launch the campaign.
How long had you been planning it?
Is the cat problem in New Zealand unique?
No it is worldwide but to a varying extent. In NZ because of our unique fauna (some of our native birds don’t fly, they are walking birds) and because of the ever-growing population of domestic cats and their spillover into feral colonies it is particularly savage. Also in light of the growing desire here to create a pest-free NZ it is obvious cats have to be one of the predators that should either go or be very strictly controlled. Finally compared to Australia’s progress here we are still in the dark ages and even compared to our own controls on dogs, our controls on cats and cat owners are way behind where they need to be.
Have you been surprised by the international exposure the campaign has got?
A little but I’m currently in Shanghai where wildlife is at a minimum because of callous disregard – actually I think they eat cats over here. The environment here is not very pleasant at all as pollution is horrible. When people ask where I’m from and I say NZ they immediately talk about our fantastic environment and how much better it is than theirs. An article was in the Shanghai Times yesterday on our campaign and people have shown a lot of interest in the subject. I think they yearn for an environment that is now pretty much lost to them. In NZ we have a ridiculously large opportunity to monetise our environmental assets and we are letting it slip away as the government instead eases restrictions on resource exploitation and rolls back protection of our environment. I want to not just raise New Zealanders’ consciousness about this but also make them think of the huge economic opportunity we are letting slip through our fingers.
So far, what would you say the split between positive/negative feedback has been?
Somewhere in the 40/60 range . The pro cat lobby here is particularly feral much like the gun lobby in the US I imagine, not strong on rational thought, big on emotional reaction and intensely self-interested.
Do you think you'll see a cat-free New Zealand within our life time?
Absolutely – once we achieve it we will fiercely protect it – just as with our non-nuclear stance.
Have you owned a cat before? What are your personal feelings towards them?
Yes, I like cats but that’s beside the point. The impact on the environment outweighs any such selfish motives. I like lions and tigers too but wouldn’t consider owning one because of the impact on others. Those impacts are more direct of course, but I think we always have to think of the consequences of our actions on the well-being of others and the destruction of our natural heritage is something we shouldn’t compromise on. It’s not just a nice-to-have, its economically optimal for NZ also which makes the madness of neglect even more costly.
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