Cat owners, councils and wildlife ecology experts are at loggerheads over proposed laws to contain pet cats to homes and allow the trapping of cats in ‘no go’ areas.
And, one leading conservationist has warned the country is experiencing a rapid escalation of biodiversity loss that without drastic measures could see much of the country’s unique wildlife wiped out.
The federal government and various local authorities are currently undertaking surveys on proposals to limit the number of areas where cats can be allowed to roam freely, in order to safeguard wildlife.
“We’re tipping over into a biodiversity crisis,” said Professor Sarah Legge of the Australian National University.
“It’s become very clear in the last few years that we’re losing biodiversity at a rapid rate, and we’re expecting that rate to continue and probably get worse because of the impacts of climate change.”
Professor Legge, one of the country’s top researchers in wildlife ecology, said her recent work showed the urgency of tackling the problem before more native animals are pushed to extinction by the specific impact of cats.
Tanya Plibersek, the Minister for the Environment and Water, announced the Federal Government’s new action plan to protect native wildlife by reducing feral cat numbers on a national scale three weeks ago.
“We are declaring war on feral cats. And today, we are setting up our battle plan to win that war,” said Ms Plibersek about the threat abatement proposal.
Three days prior, the United Nations released a new report which found feral cats were the number one driver of biodiversity loss in Australia. The Invasive Alien Species Assessment, released by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services earlier this month found human activity has introduced 3,500 invasive species to different parts of the world, causing major impacts on biodiversity.
A total 546 million animals are killed by pet cats each year, including 323 million native animals.
But feral cats are not the only cats wreaking havoc on native Australian wildlife, according to recent research published by the Biodiversity Council, Invasive Species Council and Birdlife Australia.
Of the 5.3 million pet cats in Australia, 3.7 million spend time outside, where 78 per cent of these roaming cats hunt. On average, an individual pet cat kills 115 native mammals, birds and reptiles per year. This amounts to a total 546 million animals killed by pet cats each year, including 323 million native animals.
Although these statistics are between four to five times lower than what the 2.8 million Australian feral cats kill, pet cats occupy smaller territories and pose a predation pressure on animals in their area, which Professor Legge described as “horrendous”.
“The trouble is our pet cats are living at a really high density so when they are let out into the gardens or neighbouring bushland, the end result is a really high predation rate around the edges of our towns and cities,” she said.
The research further revealed pet cats only bring home 15 per cent of the animals they kill, meaning pet cat owners are largely unaware of the scope of the problem.
Over the past 250 years, cats have been a major contributor in Australia’s 34 mammal extinctions which have earned the nation the title the ‘mammal extinction capital of the world’.
Professor Legge said the worst mammal declines had occurred in arid areas with sparse vegetation, where cats could easily hunt. She also said welfare issues existed for feral cats, who suffer higher levels of parasites, diseases and malnutrition.
“What councils need to be able to do is enforce responsible pet cat ownership,” she said. “So, enforce desexing, registration, identification, put caps on the number of cats that can be in a household unless you’re a registered breeder, and also in some cases, they need to be able to mandate 24-hour containment.
“The RSPCA and PETA also recommend containing your cat for welfare reasons because contained cats live much longer and have much lower rates of disease and injury so it’s a good thing to do for your cat.”
The Blue Mountains City Council are supporting such recommendations by offering $400 enclosure subsidies for cat owners shifting to a “safe at home lifestyle”. The program forms part of the RSPCA NSW’s ‘Keeping Cats Safe at Home’ project.
Last month, Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill described the program as “a real win-win solution that will keep our cats safer and greatly reduce the predatory impacts of cats on our precious native wildlife”.
Lane Cove Council is also looking at the issue and recently proposed outlawing cats in bushland areas.
Introduced in a council meeting in late July, the proposal reclassifies Lane Cove bushland as Wildlife Protection Areas, where under NSW law, cats cannot roam. Following the lead of many nearby councils, the proposal plans to trap and remove cats from such areas to increase native animal populations.
The proposal involves a council-led education program about the ways cats harm native wildlife and options to transition them to indoor lifestyles.
Central News spoke to several Lane Cove cat owners with various concerns about the proposal. Residents doubted the proposal’s effectiveness and believed the funding could be better spent on other council activities, like maintaining sports facilities.
Nikki Adams, who owns four cats that roam around her property during the day but are locked inside overnight, said the policy’s implementation remains unclear and she was concerned for the welfare of her pets.
“There hasn’t been much mention about how they’re going to return them, how they’re going to catch them and what’s the timeframe that all this is going to happen?” said Ms Adams.
While agreeing with the need to protect native wildlife, Tess Vickery, who owns two indoor cats and works in animal protection, worried for cats’ welfare under the proposal and struggled to find data specifically relating to the impact of Lane Cove cats.
“I’m concerned that cats are actually going to be killed as a result of this and I’m not really clear on what the benefit is,” she said.
Though the council has reassured residents it will reunite cats with their owners, Ms Vickery questioned what would happen to homeless cats or those without a microchip, and therefore, no owner to be returned to.
Desley Ward, who owns two indoor cats and is involved in cat rescue, is equally concerned for street cats. She cares for two colonies of street cats who are often pregnant, senior or kittens.
“The bulk of street cats and colony cats that are cared for in Sydney are actually cared for by private individuals who form little groups … there’s one guy in western Sydney who actually manages 19 colonies,” she said.
She feared the proposal will demonise cats and contribute to negative perceptions and animal abuse.
“[The proposal] will likely contribute to what is already a rapid problem with animal abuse – deliberate, intentional abuse that our courts don’t actually deal with properly,” she said, adding she also believed the role of humans in the matter, particularly irresponsible ones, remained unaddressed.
“Cats are being made to look like the problem whereas it’s actually humans who are the problem … there needs to be a guarantee there will be some sort of consequence for people who own a cat and dump it in or near a wildlife area,” said Ms Ward.
Professor Legge agrees.
“It’s totally our responsibility. We brought cats here. We have pet cats. So the onus is completely on us to reduce the damage that feral cats are having to native wildlife and to manage our pets responsibly,” she said.
The Federal consultation is open until December 11. Have your say here.
Images by Jessica O’Bryan.