How has the perception of cats in Australia shifted from beloved pets to harmful contributors to biodiversity?
Every day, Trevor Bauer is in conflict with cats. In his role at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, he is responsible for managing large properties in far western New South Wales that are specifically designed to prevent feral cats from entering. The first step is to build tall electric fences around the properties. Once the fences are in place, Bauer and his team use various methods such as bait, traps, and sometimes guns to remove all feral cats from the area. Afterward, smaller native mammals like numbat, bilby, and bettong, which are typically easy targets for cats, are reintroduced to the area.
At night, Bauer enjoys snuggling with his pet cat, a tortoiseshell named Titian, on the sofa.
“It’s something that many people find amusing or strange,” he chuckles. However, Bauer doesn’t have any inner turmoil about owning a cat and making arrangements for cats to be euthanized.
“My cat is 18 years old; she’s lived her whole life indoors,” he says. “She’s none the wiser of what goes on outside. And I guess I feel like it’s not like the cats’ [fault].
Cats are stunning creatures with a well-crafted design. This design allows them to excel at hunting and killing animals. However, when introduced to the Australian ecosystem, cats struggle to adapt to their new surroundings.
The presence of cats in Australia poses a major risk to the country’s biodiversity. They were brought over by the British during their invasion and have since spread throughout the entire continent. Unfortunately, the native animals in Australia did not have the evolutionary ability to defend against these predators, leading to the extinction of at least 20 species. It is estimated that cats are responsible for the death of over 300 million animals annually.
Feral cats are not the sole issue. Domestic cats, such as Titian who is loved by Bauer, do not harm wildlife when kept indoors. However, the majority of Australia’s 5 million pet cats are allowed to wander and, on average, each roaming cat kills 186 reptiles, birds, and mammals per year. Additionally, lost or abandoned pet cats can contribute to the feral cat population.
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Sarah Legge, a member of the Biodiversity Council at the Australian National University, who has spent over 30 years studying the effects of cats on wildlife, believes it would be ideal if Australia did not have cats. However, she does not support completely eradicating cats as they are valued by people and it is not a feasible solution.
The love that Australians have for cats remains strong. The rise of cat ownership can be attributed to the surge in pet adoptions during the Covid pandemic, with about 33% of households now having feline companions (compared to 48% with dogs). As more people are forced to live in apartments due to population growth, cats are expected to become a more popular choice for pets in the future. However, there is a slow shift in what the future of cat ownership should look like. Experts, including Legge, propose a solution called “cat containment” which involves keeping cats indoors or in a specially designed outdoor area called a “catio”. This helps prevent cats from roaming and harming wildlife, even when they are allowed in backyards.
According to Dr. Tiffani Howell, a researcher at La Trobe University who focuses on human-animal interactions, instead of simply getting rid of cats and rejecting them as pets due to their negative impact on wildlife, society will gradually shift towards finding ways to have cats in a sustainable and ethical manner. This means not assuming that cats are easy to take care of, as they actually require a significant amount of maintenance.
Governments at the state and territory level are starting to enforce containment measures. For example, in the Australian Capital Territory, all cats born on or after 1 July 2022 must be kept contained at all times. Certain pet shelters now require owners to agree to contain their cats before adopting them, and some local councils have implemented “cat curfews” to limit the hours that pets are allowed to roam freely. In September, the federal environment minister, Tanya Plibersek, released a preliminary national plan to address feral cats, which includes potential changes to laws related to pet cat management.
Reworded: According to Legge, dealing with feral cats is a challenging task, but handling pet cats is relatively simple. Keeping them indoors is the solution, but implementing this can be a social and regulatory issue rather than a conservation management one.
According to Legge, there is a need for uniform laws regarding cat containment across the country instead of the current inconsistent rules at the state and council levels. The bigger challenge is changing the belief that cats must be allowed to roam freely for their well-being and contentment, which is not accurate according to Legge. Additionally, there is a need to revise our understanding of responsible cat ownership.
According to Legge, the societal norms for dogs are distinct in that there is an expectation for them to be controlled and contained within their property or on a leash when off the property. This expectation is not present for cats.
A program called Safe Cats, Safe Wildlife has been developed by Zoos Victoria and RSPCA Victoria in 2018 to promote the idea of keeping cats indoors. This community aims to educate cat owners on the positive effects of containing cats. Participants receive guidance, suggestions, and resources on transitioning to cat containment, as well as knowledge about the impact of cats on indigenous animals.
Peter Lancaster, the conservation campaigner for Zoos Victoria, reports that his team has been studying the beliefs and reasons of cat owners who choose to keep their cats contained. They have found that the main concern for these owners is the well-being of their cats. According to the survey, approximately three-quarters of the participants had experienced the loss of a previous cat due to roaming incidents, such as being hit by a car or attacked by a dog. Lancaster believes that the fact that cats live longer and healthier lives when kept indoors is a more convincing reason for owners to keep their pets inside, rather than the impact on wildlife.
Lancaster approves of any method that encourages cat owners to keep their pets indoors. He also notes that more cat owners are choosing to do so, as reported by the veterinarians his team collaborates with. According to Animal Medicines Australia, a group that conducts surveys on pet ownership, the percentage of cats being contained has increased from 36% in 2019 to 42% in 2022.
Legge believes that Australians have a unique opportunity to make a positive impact on biodiversity, as they are more aware of the issue compared to other countries. This awareness can be utilized to bring about change. As someone who has owned cats in the past, Legge sees the containment solution as a way to avoid the difficult decision of whether or not to have cats at all. In other words, it allows us to have the best of both worlds.
Trevor Bauer is pleased with the news that he will not have to give up his cat in the near future. Despite being aware of the harm that cats can cause when left to roam freely, he has no intentions of living in a cat-free home. He believes that having indoor cats is different and ensures proper care for them, unlike outdoor cats that are allowed to behave as they naturally would.