We have three bird baths in our yard. A large high bird bath for bigger birds like magpies and wattlebirds, a small low pedestal one for birds like little honeyeaters, and a ground level one which is popular with a range of small birds. One day we’ll get a motion sensing camera to watch the ground level bird bath so we can see if possums, lizards, and koalas use it too.
But none of these native species have fluffy ginger fur like what I found in the bird bath recently! That was a week or so after we found a bird killed nearby. So either we have had a fox visiting us or a cat. Chances are, it was a cat. Very possibly one that belongs to one of our neighbours.
Are cats really that much of a problem?
Domestic pet cats, are the same species as stray or feral cats. They’re all Felis catus. The difference is one of lifestyle not species. And this is where we run into difficulties. Defining the difference (if there is one) between a ‘feral’ and a ‘stray’ cat is contentious and dependent on community beliefs about cats and whether it might be possible to tame a particular individual.
Feral cats are identified in the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act 1999), as a key threatening process of native animals in Australia and their management is therefore a high priority. They are also listed in other places around the world as a threat to native animals.
Feral cats kill and eat a variety of native animals across Australia and they place additional disease and competition burden on a range of native animals. They’re estimated to occupy 99.8% of Australia.
The Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by Feral Cats (Threat Abatement Plan), which came out of the EPBC Act 1999, describes the need to determine what proportion of ‘domestic’ and ‘stray’ cats are likely to become ‘feral’ cats and defines a feral cat as one that is living without intentional support from humans. Yet the Threatened Species Recovery Hub recommends defining cats as either ‘pet’ or ‘feral’, one or theother, no other categories. The Adelaide Hills Council uses the terms ‘feral’ and ‘stray’ interchangeably and other councils have similar issues with definition of what’s what.
Similarly, Woinarski, Legge, and Dickman (2019) define feral cats as being all cats in Australia that are not pet cats. They define stray cats as a subset of feral cats.
Notwithstanding the different definitions there is a reasonable amount of agreement to proceed on the basis that cats are either pets or feral.
It’s important to note that habitat loss and degradation (i.e. land clearance/deforestation, failure to maintain integrity of remaining bushland), is considered a greater threat than feral cats to native populations like the Southern Brown Bandicoot in the Mount Lofty Ranges. Nevertheless, pet and feral cats are estimated to kill more than 2.3 billion native animals per year and to have been a primary driver of extinctions across Australia.
Loss of small native mammals means not only a loss in biodiversity, but also losses to agricultural settings where they provide useful sustainable land management. The digging behaviours of many native animals have beneficial impacts to rain infiltration, soil erosion and more.
Feral cats are also known to spread a parasite causing the disease Toxoplasmosis, which has negative impacts on human physical and mental health, and on native animals. Sheep are affected by macroscopic sarcocycstosis, which they get via cats. The condition reduces the amount of meat that is saleable from each animal and so decreases farmers’ incomes, with significant impact on Kangaroo Island.
These impacts are substantial and broad-ranging, but they’re mostly invisible, to most people, most of the time. As a result, very little is done about it.
What’s happening to manage cats?
Obtaining information around feral cats is a convoluted process. Few environmental volunteers or professionals, even those who have worked in the sector for many years, are knowledgeable about what is being done to manage cats in the Mount Lofty Ranges and whose responsibility it is.
There’s not much happening to manage feral cats, except in Kangaroo Island, where a large and reasonably well-resourced government-funded effort is underway on the Dudley Peninsula, and to a lesser extent in Cudlee Creek. Following the bushfires last summer there is a unique opportunity to locate feral cats which are more exposed than usual.
There is also a Wildlife Recovery Fund from which landholders and community groups will be able to gain grants to do work including feral animal control. Beyond these regions there aren’t any additional planned actions by government for feral cat control.
Many councils have implemented (or have an implementation timeline for) stronger regulations around so called ‘local cats’ roaming the streets at night. But councils do not actually have a legislative mandate to manage feral cats, despite calls for ‘stray’ cats to be classed as ‘feral’ cats. Recently a move by the City of Marion to enforce a curfew on cats was banned by State Parliament. Meanwhile, the RSPCA head says they receive around 10,000 stray cats every year. The pet cats of today are the ‘stray’, ‘roaming’, ‘local’, ‘nuisance’, feral cats of tomorrow and they’re likely to move into conservation and agricultural spaces.
Supporting the efforts of councils is the Dog and Cat Management Board, which operates under the Dog and Cat Management Act 1995. According to one of their initiatives, Good Cat, there are around half a million stray, semi-owned cats in South Australia. As a result all pet cats must now be microchipped and desexed but other initiatives (like registration, curfews, and confinement) rest with individual councils to implement.
To completely eliminate feral cats it would require:
- All mainland Australian councils having by-laws that require microchipping, desexing, and containment of all pet cats
- 100% compliance to the above by all pet cat owners
- A decades-long commitment of funding and resources to locate and remove every feral cat from mainland Australia.
Woinarski, Legge and Dickman (2019) conclude that Australia should aim to eradicate feral cats over a period of approximately 50 years.
What should we do?
A consistent definition of feral cats needs to be developed across Australia using science rather than emotion or belief as a guide. This definition needs to then be consistently used across all federal and state and territory governments, agencies, organisations and the community, beginning with a significant education and marketing campaign to gain the social licence needed to establish the legitimacy of a feral cat management plan.
Actions at state level need to be coordinated and a lead agency appointed. The State Government needs to set clear targets for phased cat management and communicate them clearly with the general public. Bipartisan commitment to the eradication of feral cats is critical to success and requires high levels of voter support to maintain.
A detailed transition timeframe for all South Australian councils to implement by-laws for pet cat sterilisation, registration and microchipping, and confinement, with a target of 2025 could then lead into the final phase of actively targeting feral cats (including strays). In South Australia this would sit best with the Landscapes Boards and National Parks and Wildlife Service, in collaboration with the broader community.
With climate change, bushfire events are anticipated to continue to increase in frequency and severity and as such Commonwealth and State governments need to be planning to fund feral cat management whenever the opportunity and need presents itself, as in Kangaroo Island and Cudlee Creek in 2020. It is unsustainable to imagine that the general public can or will continue to fund these efforts year after year, especially if that requires ongoing grant application processes which are likely to wear down landholders. Secure ongoing funding is essential.
Wildlife is under significant pressure from human activities, particularly climate change and deforestation. I love cats but their impact on wildlife is one threat that we can actually control at individual level. It is time for cat owners to keep their pets inside to alleviate one pressure on native species and help wildlife to re-build their populations and flourish again. And, to make bird watching that much more rewarding.
Thank you to the many volunteers and several scientists and professionals who freely gave their time to connect with me about feral cats in the greater Adelaide area. I love your work!
This article is a re-working of an assignment that contributed to my pursuit of a Graduate Certificate in Environmental Policy and Management from the University of Adelaide. It is less academic than the original so it can speak to a broader audience. For those who are hungry for more, please refer to the references below.
© Palitja Moore, text, and image, Bird Bath with Dead Bird’s Feathers, 2020
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