The Current

Free-roaming felines are causing problems in Iceland. Some towns are considering a cat curfew

Cats loom large in Iceland's folklore and culture, but some towns and cities are now trying to get the feline population under control.

Some Icelanders deem roving cats a nuisance, others worry about threat to wildlife

Ronja the cat lives with journalist Egill Bjarnason and his family in Iceland. He describes her as a 'total menace.' (Submitted by Egill Bjarnason)

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Some parts of Iceland are toying with cat curfews — which would penalize owners who fail to keep their felines indoors overnight — or even outright bans on cats being allowed outdoors.

The town of Akureyri approved an outdoor ban earlier this year, but later changed the proposal to an overnight curfew after complaints. 

Egill Bjarnason, a writer and journalist in Reykjavik, says the proposals are in part because roaming cats are increasingly being deemed a nuisance by many non-cat-loving Icelanders. He added that some people are also concerned about the ecological havoc that the skilled hunters can wreak on bird and wildlife populations.

It's a shift in how cats have been appreciated in the country. Dogs have historically been viewed as farm animals, which meant cats were the widely preferred pet for decades, up to the 1980s. Though there are less cuddly examples of prominent cats in Icelandic culture. A giant statue of the Yule Cat is erected in Reykjavik every year. In folklore, the animal is said to roam the countryside, preying on people over the Christmas period. 

Bjarnason and Ronja at home. He keeps her indoors at the moment, to protect the birds nesting in his garden. (Submitted by Egill Bjarnason)

Bjarnason and his family got a tabby cat called Ronja during the pandemic. Though he's a big fan of the animals in general, he quickly realized Ronja is "a total menace" to all living things.

He talked to The Current's Matt Galloway about how many Icelanders still love their cats, but are wrestling with some anti-social cat behaviour. Here is part of their conversation.

Why is it that Iceland is so cat positive, if I can put it that way?

Well cats are great, that's the short answer. Another one is that in Reykjavik, dogs were banned for a very long time. We considered them farm animals. And so until 1985, Reykjavik [had not] allowed dogs as pets. So, you know, a lot of people just grew up with cats instead.

In the face of all of this cat celebration and cat positivity, there is a push to get cats off the streets. What is wrong with cats in Iceland right now? Why are people lobbying against cats outdoors? 

I think two things have happened. During the pandemic, a lot of people got a cat, invited the cat to their home.

And [secondly] the idea of banning cats outside just kind of spread, and gripped a part of the population who believe it's the right thing to do

Many people have their own reasoning, but in a recent article I wrote, I looked at it from the ecological standpoint. 

A statue of the Yule Cat in Reykjavik. In folklore, the monstrous cat eats people at Christmas time. (Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty)

What is that ecological standpoint?

Well domestic cats are rarely part of an ecosystem. Despite thousands of years of domestication, cats still prefer their food at 38 C, the temperature of fresh blood. They are killers. 

And I got a cat during the pandemic, and I [realized] the hard way how much damage they can do to bird life. 

Cats are responsible for the extinction of at least 63 species worldwide ... and if you think about the numbers that they hunt every year, these are billions of birds that domestic cats hunt. The biggest sort of human-imposed mortality of birds is by domestic cats. They kill more than, you know, buildings and cars. 

And so in cat-loving Iceland, how does this idea go down, that cats are killers and we need to keep the cats off the streets and indoors? 

Now many people are arguing for a curfew on cats, whether it is a night-time curfew, or a total [outdoor] cat curfew. And, you know, the debate doesn't necessarily take into account that they do the damage to bird life, it is also that people see them as a nuisance.

This has been an election issue in one city in Iceland. Can you tell me briefly about that? 

In the town of Akureyri, which is the largest town outside of Reykjavik or the capital area, they decided to ban [outdoor] cats entirely starting in 2025. 

And they then had to roll it back because there was a lot of objection. Nationwide, there were people protesting this ban on behalf of cats. And saying … that they should be allowed to roam outside as they have done, ever since the country was settled. 

And eventually, before local elections which just occurred, they decided to change this ban into a night-time curfew. So from 10 in the evening, to the morning.

Bjarnason said many people in Iceland consider free-roaming cats to be a nuisance, but also pose a threat to wildlife. (Submitted by Egill Bjarnason)

And in those elections, there was a cat party that was running. Is that right? 

There was a local artist called Snorri Ásmundsson who ran as the head of the Cat Party. And he said actually that if he would be elected, he would allow a cat called Reykjavik to take his seat in the local parliament. 

But he didn't get elected partly because, you know, his cause was kind of ruined … by softening the ban. 

You said you got a cat during the pandemic?

Yeah. I have a cat who is with me here, and looking at me sort of like a mafia boss. So I'm being very careful about what I say. 

She's been a total menace and I've been keeping her inside now that we have a nesting season. I have a lot of backyard birds and I like to have it that way. 

She was an outdoor cat when we got her, but she will have to stay inside now. 

I tried to tell her that indoor cats live up to four times as long. But she's been trying to put on more weight to prove me wrong. 

LISTEN | Listeners share solutions for keeping your cat out of mischief

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Camilla Bains. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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