The End of Cats: An Interview With the New Zealand Economist Calling to Eliminate All Kitties

"The cat lobby here is just as feral, self-centered and as balmy as your gun lobby is"

Alexis Madrigal/The Atlantic

It might strike you as a sick Internet joke, but Gareth Morgan isn't kidding: The prominent New Zealand economist and environmentalist wants his country 100 percent cat-free and he's willing to go extraordinary lengths to make it a reality.

Cats are a "friendly neighborhood serial killer" of birds and other wildlife, Morgan said in the New York Times. He has called for the neutering of all living cats in New Zealand to ensure that this is the country's last kitty generation and has gone as far as to encourage citizens to set up cage-traps on their properties to snatch wanderers.

We emailed Morgan to ask him about his campaign. A lightly edited transcript of our correspondence is below.

THOMPSON: New Zealand reportedly has the highest cat-ownership rate in the world. How come?

MORGAN: Because we have virtually no obligations on cat owners (bit like you guys with your guns) and so people own them, abandon them, and generally take no responsibility for the unintended consequences of their actions. The most oft-heard and erroneous utterance we get here from cat owners is, "Oh but my pussy only kills rats and mice, he'd never harm a native bird." As you can see this denial verges on explicit stupidity.

Why is it so important to protect bird species that are endangered by New Zealand's cats?

Because our natural environment is arguably our greatest asset. And because the economic value of [our environment] has hardly been capitalized on, and it is continuing to rise at an exponential rate, as the rest of the world cursed by high population density sits in its own nest.

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. [There was] 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 monetize 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.

What is your plan to eliminate the NZ cat population?

To educate the public and have them carry out the action. Here are the main elements of what would do it;

  1. All cats to be registered, chipped & neutered -- raising the barriers to cat ownership to those similarly already faced by dog owners. Chipping instead of collars is because cats more easily slip collars. [Ed: Chipping, or micro-chipping, means inserting an implant under the skin for identification.]

  2. Citizens to be encouraged to cage-trap cats wandering on their properties and turn them in to the local authority.

  3. Cats surrendered to the local authority Pound, to be euthanized if unregistered, to returned to registered owner who is fined.

  4. Councils to offer free disposal of cats. Vets are prohibitively expensive.

Does New Zealand have a history of tax and regulatory policy around cats, or is your suggestion blazing a new path here?

It's a new path, we are quite strict on dogs and prohibit lions and tigers but on cats we are totally negligent.

Do you wonder whether a campaign to eliminate ALL cats might be un-strategic? Why not press for a cat limit per household, or seek ways to preserve certain bird species that don't involve forcibly neutering the cat population? 

Neutered cats still kill for pleasure, and unless research has shown that neutering projects fail to reduce the size of feral cat colonies materially -- the problem being that getting 100% neutering coverage is too expensive for people and so they disobey such laws -- abandoned kitten litters and feral populations actually rise. Birds are only one of the species at risk, we have heaps of unique skunks, geckos, and insects that also are under siege from the cats humans have introduced to these islands.

Why not go through tax policy: Just tax cats more, or give people a tax credit if they neuter their cat?

As I said above, registering cats is one part of the approach, encouraging people to set cage traps on their properties to capture wandering cats and then have them euthanized is the other.

Are you looking to other public policy examples for lessons, for example gun control? Your ambition to take away a popular but lethal product from households seems similar in ways to the United States' (and particularly American liberals') ambition to strictly regulate gun ownership.

Agree totally, and the cat lobby here is just as feral, self-centered and as balmy as your gun lobby is. Have you been surprised at the groups that have come out in support/or against your cat elimination plan? Not really, the idea was to galvanize a public reaction, that has been achieved. Stage II will be released in the next month and will wind up the ante