Invasive species are the biggest drivers of biodiversity loss in Australia, a new United Nations report found this week. And feral cats are the most invasive in the country’s landscape, killing an estimated two billion animals per year, according to Australia’s environment minister, Tanya Plibersek.
The Australian government announced this week that it is “declaring war” on these cats, releasing a draft action plan that includes measures like creating programs for recreational hunters to shoot feral cats, and euthanizing some cats caught in the wild.
This isn’t exactly new — the Australian government also declared war on feral cats back in 2015 — but the recent proposal contains some new elements. Authorities are also considering putting more limits on domestic cats, like keeping them indoors at night, enacting a cap on the number of cats each household can own, and creating more cat-free suburbs.
“This consultation paper will ask really important questions, like, ‘Should we have a cat curfew? Should local governments have more opportunity to restrict the ownership of cats in their area?’” Ms. Plibersek told local news media yesterday.
Many local governments in Australia already have tight cat restrictions, some of which have made international headlines. The ironically named Mount Barker in South Australia limits each household to two pet cats. Other local councils require pet cats to be kept indoors, or have designated suburbs as “cat containment zones” where the pets must be kept indoors at all times.
Christmas Island, an Australian territory northwest of the mainland, imposed a ban on bringing any more cats onto the island and required all residents to sterilize their pet cats, measures which authorities hoped would cause the island’s population to eventually die out.
Although these pet management strategies are usually enacted at the local level, they can be curtailed by weak or differing laws at the state level. Under the government’s new proposal, states would create consistent laws while local governments would be empowered to more easily create cat-free suburbs.
A few months ago, I spoke to Sarah Legge, an professor at the Australian National University and one of the country’s lead researchers on the impact of cats, who said that Australians are broadly more accepting of these measures to contain domestic cats than people in many other countries.
“Maybe our job is easier in Australia, unfortunately, because we’ve lost so many species,” she said. “The public is much more supportive of managing cats, including pet cat owners.”
One domestic cat kills on average about 186 mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs a year, compared to the 748 that one feral cat can kill, Ms. Legge’s research found. However, because domestic cats are concentrated in higher densities in suburbs, the total number of animals they kill per hectare in the suburbs is higher than the number that feral cats in the bush kill.
The impacts of domestic and feral cats “bleed into each other,” Ms. Legge said. “Pets can become strays, and strays can become ferals. And they can go back in the opposite direction as well.”
Although Australia has wrestled with its feral cat problem for decades, with programs to trap, shoot and poison them, it’s been only in recent years that attention has also shifted to domestic cats.
“We did a lot of work on feral cats for a long time, and, at some point, about five years ago, we decided the time was right to slowly open the conversation about pet cats,” Professor Legge said.
It’s a delicate conversation to have, particularly with cat owners, she added. “Everyone was very careful about not wanting to polarize the debate, and not making people defensive about their pets.”
“We’ve got a choice: We either need to decide that we want to manage and maintain our unique biodiversity, or we let it go, and feral cats run amok in the country,” she said. “It’s a choice we have to make, and I think we can do that and still be really sensitive to pet owners.”
Now for this week’s stories: