A guest post by Nick Bryant:
The other day in a TV3 news story about Gareth Morgan offering beer to students who front up with the carcasses of dead rats, Mr Morgan said “there’s no evidence whatsoever” for claims that a successful campaign to rid the nation of cats might lead to a plague of rats. He went on to say that “at most 20 per cent of rats end up as a victim of cats.”
I don’t know if that final point is true or not – though my guess is it’s light. But he’s quite wrong that there’s no evidence that wiping out cats doesn’t result in a plague of rats. He probably reckoned he was on safe ground making the claim, given his hoped for decimation of domestic and wild cats could seldom have occurred. After all, how would you wipe them all out?
Well, it has occurred, in the Bario Highlands in Sarawak, Borneo, and sure enough, the result was a plague of rats – and other nasty creepy crawlies.
I’d read about this in the biography of Tom Harrison, an early anthropologist and the founding father of Mass Observation. Quite the fearless pioneer, Mr Harrisson did ground-breaking anthropological research amongst cannibal tribes in the South Pacific, and parachuted into wartime Borneo to lead headhunting guerrilla fighters against the Japanese.
David Attenborough describes him as “arrogant, choleric, swashbuckling, often drunk and nearly always deliberately outrageous. In spite of these contradictions, he became a key figure in every enterprise he undertook.”
The title of his biography is The Most Offending Soul Alive. I suspect Mr Morgan would have liked him.
What follows is a remarkable account of what happens when you disrupt the ecological balance as Mr Morgan has campaigned to do. What’s clear is that if Mr Morgan gets backing to kill the nation’s cats, we’re going to have to deal with the rats at exactly the same time. And even then, what impact that will have on the population of other animals, good or bad from a human perspective, is quite another matter.
From pages 328 and 329, Tom Harrisson and his Remarkable Life – The Most Offending Soul Alive, 1997 Aurum Press …
Thanks to an antimalaria program by the World Health Organization, there were no almost no mosquitoes or cockroaches. But, as Tom discovered, there were no also no cats; they had been poisoned by eating the spray-killed cockroaches. With the cats gone, there was an explosion in the number of rats. Without cockroaches, bed bugs, which had never been a serious problem before, proliferated. One conclusion Tom drew was that although “the benefits of malarial spraying so far are tremendous … there are anxious nights ahead” from the possible danger of typhus, cholera, and plague from the rats, bed bugs and other parasites. Tom’s moral was “All who wish the ulu well should daily repeat this motto: Do good carefully.”
Meanwhile, he came up with his own method for righting the ecological imbalance. In a wireless message of November 23, 1959, to Borneo Airways, Tom asked the pilot to “bring some hungry cats to tackle the plague of rats. I guarantee immediate payment [for] all.” The plea went out to all Kuching. Ong Kee Hui and many other old friends contributed kittens for Bario. Barbara had the thankless job of caring for them until a plane could fly to Bario and deliver the cats and, she hoped, collect Tom. According to an account that Tom published later, “in all the coast towns … the WHO opened special centres” for donations of “surplus cats.”
The project hit a snag when no plane could be made available that could land on Bario’s short strip, but, as Tom wrote, with the help of the RAF from Singapore “special containers were devised” in which to pack the cats. One clear day, an RAF aircraft from Singapore collected the cats in Kuching and flew inland. Then, “into the interior uplands suddenly cascaded parachute-borne containers bulging with cats of every degree of age and race.” This may have solved the problem of the rats, if not the bed bugs.
I love it – parachuting cats in to kill the rats!