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By Jo Gould, Volunteering Co-ordinator, DOC Nelson

I had the pleasure of going to an Interschool Speech Competition the other week and listening to some inspirational and thoughtful speeches presented by primary school (Years 5 & 6) students. Those kids were impressive! Their evocative use of language, voice and gestures would knock the socks off many budding Toastmasters (myself included)!

Leah Nicolls’ speech particularly impressed me. Leah is 10 years old and has a cat which she loves. But she cares about conservation too and has a passion for New Zealand’s wildlife. Her speech was inspired by Gareth Morgan’s campaign and is on the impact of domestic cats on our native birdlife.

Here’s what she had to say:

Leah Nicolls and her cat.

Leah Nicolls and her cat

Gareth Morgan’s cat free challenge and the impact of domestic cats on native birds

“Imagine a New Zealand teeming with wildlife, penguins on the beach, kiwis roaming about in your garden. Imagine hearing birdsong in our cities”

This is New Zealand businessman and environmentalist Gareth Morgan’s vision for New Zealand.  His vision is a cat free one.

Yes that’s right a completely cat free New Zealand.

Kiwi in urban park.

Imagine a New Zealand teeming with wildlife…

Gareth Morgan’s vision is a very difficult one to achieve because New Zealanders own the most cats per capita in the world.

28% of New Zealand households own a cat. This means out of every 100 houses 28 of them have a cat. Now that’s a lot of cats!

In addition 20% of houses have two or more cats. Consequently there are 1.4 million cats in New Zealand. Now that is a lot of cats!

And what do cats do? They kill birds. Of particular concern is that they kill native birds.  So as much as we love those cute four legged fluff balls they are damaging New Zealand, destroying our beautiful birdlife which New Zealand is known for.

Cat with bird in its mouth. Photo: Carolina/flickr.

Cats kill birds. Photo: Carolina

However it is not just cats. 38 extinctions occurred between the arrival of Maori and European settlement. The loss was influenced by Maori hunting for food, forest burning and the introduction of the Polynesian rat and dog.

Since European settlement a further 19 extinctions have occurred. These were caused by logging, forest clearing, habitat change, and importantly the introduction of a large number of predators.  The most destructive of these were the rat and the stoat.

But it was a lighthouse keeper’s cat that in 1894 ate the last Stephens Island wren, the world’s smallest and only flightless song bird.

Our understanding of how damaging predators are to native birds began very slowly. We lost a lot of birds figuring it out. Ideas changed a lot in 1964 after rats got a foot hold on a remote island near Stewart Island. People knew the rats had got there but they thought it would be okay. It wasn’t.

It was a turning point in our protection of native birds.  From then on around New Zealand there was a growing awareness that humans would have to help if we wanted to save critically endangered birds.

I think what Gareth Morgan is doing would help to protect native birds. Pest control is good, but the damage our cats are doing at home is important as well. I would support Gareth Morgan’s challenge to make New Zealand cat free.

Over time it might mean that a bird sitting in your garden right now may escape the fate of extinction too.

I’m sure all of us hate getting up for another boring day of school. But it all goes away when you draw your curtains and see a small silver-green wax eye sitting on a branch feeding on nectar from a flower. The existence of these birds can take us to a whole different place.

Silvereye or wax-eye. Photo: Jason Milich.

Silvereye or wax-eye. Photo: Jason Milich

So can you imagine what it would be like to draw your curtains and know that you would never see a fantail flitting about or a tui with its white throat tuft and shinning black feathers singing from branch to branch?  Imagine never seeing that again.

Did you know that domestic cats greatly contributed to 9 native bird extinctions in New Zealand? The major way to reduce this happening is to get rid of cats.

If you have a cat at home you probably think I am cruel. But actually I have a cat myself and I love her to pieces.

I don’t think I would be able to get rid of her; it would just be too hard. So I agree with the Department of Conservation and Gareth Morgan that you enjoy your cats while you have them but when their time is up you don’t get a replacement. Another recommendation is that you get your cats neutered. This would mean Gareth Morgan’s vision for New Zealand is not impossible.

“Imagine a NZ teeming with wildlife, penguins on the beach, kiwis roaming about your garden. Imagine hearing birdsong in our cities”.  That is the New Zealand I would like to live in too.

Jo Gould.

Jo Gould

Leah already has an impressive conservation resume—she is in her school’s Enviroclub and likes gardening at home.  Apparently, she confused her grandfather during a summer fishing trip by catching the fish of the day and then insisting dinner was safely returned, alive, to the sea!

With kids like Leah around to lead the conservation effort in the future, we can be confident that conservation is in good hands.

Thanks, Leah, for taking on the challenge of looking at something close to you that needs changing.  You are an inspiration and have a wonderful vision for New Zealand.