I’d like to take you to task about your misuse of statistics and research in your Cats To Go campaign this week. You used to strike me as a fairly smart guy. You’ve been a successful businessman, insightful economist, forward thinking investor and a generous philanthropist. However since you launched Cats To Go this week it seems that all you’ve done is demonstrate the truth in the old saying that “there’s lies, damned lies and statistics”.
I’ll focus on your infographic because you’ve been pushing this easy to share, social media friendly format reasonably heavily. Early in the piece you link cats to the extinction of New Zealand bird species. On the surface this is true. Cats have been deemed responsible for wiping out 9 of 41 native bird species that have gone extinct here. Yet the design of your image for this statistic is clearly trying to imply that cats are solely responsible for exterminating 40% of our native bird species. This is completely misleading. Cats are primarily responsible for only 18% of those 41 species. This figure is easy to calculate using both the figures you provide as that in the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
So no, 40% of bird species did not go extinct just because of cats.
Another claim, that “your cat” can roam up to 69 hectares is equally as dubious. This study out of Illinois indicates that only feral cats are anywhere likely to roam that type of territory. That study also pointed out that the mean range for a domestic cat was only 2 hectares. A New Zealand study you also reference for a different “fact” of yours put that figure at 2.6 hectares in Dunedin, a far cry from the area you’re claiming. Yet another misleading use of statistics, Mr Morgan.
Then there’s the small matter of claiming that “your cat is responsible for killing 65 critters per yer”. This is again highly misleading. Chances are few cats ever reach anywhere near this figure. To use the very scientist you reference against you, Dr Yolanda van Heezik’s own study says that about a third of cats do not hunt, half hunt infrequently and only 20% were frequent hunters.
You then go on to speculate what New Zealand would be like without cats with this emotive piece. Unfortunately, Mr Morgan, you’re letting your imagination run wild while pretending to present it as fact. As Landcare Research scientist John Innes points out, “When cats, ferrets and hedgehogs were targeted in Mackenzie Basin braided rivers, possums and Norway rats then ate the black-fronted terns.” While this is only an anecdote, he also says, “In New Zealand native forests, ship rats are the major prey, and this little-seen predator eats many more birds than cats do. The Gareth Morgan website refers to kaka, kokako, weka, mohua, teke and robins as endangered, perhaps implying that cat control might help them, but cats are not significant predators of any of these species, except possibly weka.”
All of that makes your claim that “bird life would return to the cities” dubious at best, especially given that without cats in urban areas, rodent populations would logically increase. True, you claim we can set traps for them – but that only takes care of rodents inside people’s houses, not those who would be otherwise caught over the 2 hectares that most domestic cats seem to roam. Or do you propose massive 1080 drops, as I can’t see how mass trapping could be anymore economically affordable than domestic pet ownership?
We should also observe that, going back to Dr van Heezik’s study, cats predominately prey on things other than native birds. I’ve already covered off cats eating other predator species, but they also help target the competition to native birds – imported and exotic birds such as pigeons, sparrows and blackbirds. Competition also has negative impacts on native species that cats do help mitigate to some extent.
You have also previously claimed that a cat, even with food in front of it, will kill a small animal placed next to it and then return to eating its meal. Thankfully a man who actually takes time to read research took a look at your claim, and pointed out how you have again blatantly lied to your audience. Bob Kerridge, Chief Executive of the SPCA points out that in the study you reference “the 1975 study quoted, as referenced on the website, shows that of 44 subjects, 26 did not attack prey (more than 50 per cent), and many who did kill presented defensive postures.” This means that most of the cats weren’t being “killing machines”. Certainly some were, but others were defending their food – a perfectly rational behaviour for an animal that we see often in the wild as they ultimate know they’re not guaranteed their next meal.
What does this all mean for you Mr Morgan? It means your credibility has to be called into question. Your selective, misleading and, in my opinion, outright deceptive use of statistics undermines your entire argument. While I have no objection to encouraging positive pet ownership behaviours such as spaying/neutering, bells on collars, microchipping and keeping cats indoors at sunrise and sunset, laying assault to a cultural institution of Western society with half-truths, scare tactics and lies backed by your considerable wealth isn’t going to get your message across.
Of course, if you were actually interested in using facts and science to encourage meaningful debate on the topic, you wouldn’t have cats saying “I love to kill” in your infographic or a Photoshopped image of a Scottish Fold kitten done up as a devil. But you’re clearly not interested in that at all. You’re only interested in pursuing your personal vision regardless of what the science actually says or regardless of what the potential negative impact could be to native species.
I challenge you, Mr Morgan, now that I’ve demonstrated your “lies, damned lies and statistics”, to take down your misleading Cats To Go website, apologise to the New Zealanders you’ve offended, alienated and lied to, then go and put your money into funding genuine research into the impact of predation on our native species and encouraging responsible pet ownership in a way that’s not sensationalist or misleading.