A case of animal racism from Gareth Morgan

Economist wants cats confined so they die out in New Zealand.

My daughter Naomi is an actuary and occasional stand-up comedian. Her on-stage persona is a not-very-bright young woman called Dolly Putin. Dolly was responsible for this gem: ‘I can’t understand all this fuss about endangered species.  How can they be endangered when there are more and more of them all the time?’

I was reminded of Dolly when I read a story in this morning’s Herald, headlined, ‘Morgan calls for cats to be wiped out’.

Morgan is economist Gareth Morgan who, according to the first line in the story, is launching a campaign to ‘eradicate’ domestic cats.

Despite the Herald’s sensation-seeking hyperbole, Gareth Morgan doesn’t actually want to kill cats; he wants cat owners to keep their pets permanently inside and not to replace them when they die – a sort of benevolent eugenics. No domestic cats would be killed, but the species would die out in New Zealand. 

‘Cats,’ the Herald reports Dr Morgan as saying, ‘are sadists and natural-born killers that destroy native wildlife.’

I’d like to avoid a fruitless debate about the relative merits of cats and dogs as species or pets and look at the wider issue of the categorisation of species generally as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The common feature among all species, it seems to me, is that they want to survive. They neither want to die, nor to die out. The survival of one species, however, is often dependent on killing and eating members of another species.

We admire ‘big cats’ for their prowess in this, but condemn the same instinct in the domestic cat. I can see the logic in it – the domestic cat doesn’t need to kill birds or rats and mice to survive; its killing is gratuitous.

But this is equally true of humans. We don’t need to kill sheep and cows and pigs and assorted birds and sea creatures to survive. We do it primarily for our personal gratification. We could survive perfectly well on grains and vegetables and fruit. Millions of people do.

More interesting to me is the distinction which we make between cats killing birds (bad) and cats killing rats and mice (good).

Such distinctions directly reflect our view of the victims themselves. Birds are ‘good’ and ‘nice’, rats and mice are ‘bad’ and ‘nasty’. Neither the birds nor the rats and mice know this of course. They’re just getting on with following their instincts to breed and survive.

But if the rats and mice don’t know that they’re ‘vermin’ – perhaps the most derogatory word in our language – they certainly do know that they exist in constant peril of their lives. Their highly successful concealment and escape strategies attest to that.

Rats and mice are clever creatures. So I have mixed feelings when our cats deposit a dead rat on the rug in front of the fire. I don’t like rats either, but I feel sorry when any living creature is killed.

I also feel sorry when the corpse on the carpet is a thrush or a finch. But I don’t feel more sorry. I don’t make that distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ species in the animal world, since animals don’t have consciences and can’t  make moral judgements.

Gareth Morgan’s desire to eliminate domestic cats from New Zealand (and presumably everywhere else) involves a further refinement of the ‘cats bad’, ‘birds good’ argument. Not all birds, it transpires, are created equal. The killing of an immigrant bird may be regrettable, but the killing of a native bird is an absolute tragedy. I have trouble with this argument on two grounds.

The first I’ve already advanced: one species may be more attractive than another, but its degree of attractiveness, let alone its nationality, ought not to confer on it a greater right to survive and breed. That is akin to animal racism. I find our native fantails absolutely charming but the death of an immigrant sparrow will cause me just as much grief.

So the issue finally comes down to Dolly’s endangered species. She’s right of course, there do seem to be more of them all the time. But society’s concern for endangered species seems to have more to do with sentiment than reason.

Other than through the activities of men, most notably in the case of marine mammals, endangered species are the corollary of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ – the non-survival of the less fit, the less well adapted.

Our national bird, the kiwi, is a popular example of an endangered species. Would it be sad if the kiwi disappeared? Well of course it would. And all the more sad because it’s neither gorgeous nor gainly and the silly thing can’t even meet the most basic qualification of birdhood, to be able to fly.

People say, ‘Just imagine what it would be like if you could never see another kiwi again.’ Well, it would be a pity but we’d get over it. For just as some species disappear, others are discovered. We will never run out of species to admire, love and have as national symbols.

Well then, Brian, why all the fuss about Gareth Morgan wanting to eliminate the entire cat population of New Zealand?

Well, it’s based on sentiment rather than reason; his facts, as Bob Kerridge points out in today’s Herald, are (uncharacteristically in my opinion) wrong; it’s counterproductive since cats kill rats which eat birds’ eggs and kill their chicks;  it’s entirely impractical since the only way to keep cats in the house is to close every door and window; and, even if it were possible, it would bring enormous sadness to more than two million New Zealand men, women and children. I’m not in favour of that. And neither are Max and Felix.

Finally, as for cats being sadists and natural-born killers. Well, that bit’s probably right.

Media trainer and commentator Dr Brian Edwards blogs at Brian Edwards Media

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