THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN CAT DILEMMA
This article was originally written in 1993. Two follow-up articles were written in 1994 and 1997 and have been incorporated into this article. The information has been left intact with only minor updates. Nevertheless, it provides a good background to the topic and contains valid information.
Australia has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world. Many of its unique species are threatened with extinction. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) fears the country will lose 50% of its bird species in the next century. According the ACF, the biggest problem is land clearing but according to other parties, the predatory habits of alien species - in particular the domestic cat - is the main threat to Australian native wildlife.
Australia's unique wildlife apparently risks being hunted to extinction unless the cat population is controlled. Native fauna is ill-equipped to deal with this naturalised predator. Three types of cat are recognised: domestic cats which are wholly dependent on humans, unowned stray cats which rely on humans to some extent and feral cats (bush cats) whose reliance on humans is minimal. They can breed 3 or 4 times a year, averaging 4 kittens per litter and can rapidly establish colonies wherever there is a good food source.
1n 1993 there were an estimated 3 million pet cats and 4 million ferals in Australia (Britain has 7 million pet cats and around 1 million ferals) by 1999, there were an estimated 15 million ferals. The difference is largely due to the sampling and estimating methods used rather than exponential growth of the feral cat population. These cats are considered to be responsible for decreasing wildlife numbers despite the fact that pollution, road-building, housing/industrial development, farming and habitat destruction adversely affects many native animals.
At present there is much conflicting 'information' about the amount of damage done by cats in Australia. Some authorities claim that cats are hunting native wildlife to extinction. Others claim cats are unfairly targetted since overclearing and overstocking of land in the late 1800s and the introduction of the Red Fox for sport in 1910 made had a worse impact on wildlife numbers. Sometimes the attempted cures are as bad as the initial problem - a huge number of native animals fall victim to 1080 poison and steel-jaw traps set for bush cats.
Not surprisingly this has led to pro-cat and anti-cat camps in Australia, with dubious survey statistics being used to fuel the debate. A writer in the Australian magazine NATIONAL CAT likened the Australian attitude towards cats to that in Medieval Europe. Australia is in the grip of intense anti-cat feeling; cats are viewed as evil, destructive creatures and restrictions on cat ownership are planned. There are reports of anti-cat pogroms and cats being kidnapped, tortured and killed, just as they were in the Middle Ages, by people bamboozled by 'rubbery' statistics presented by anti-cat campaigners.
In 1995, the wildlife issue became more urgent with a rabbit calcivirus outbreak causing predators in previously rabbit-infested areas to turn more and more to native animals. New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service stepped up the use of poison bait (not trapping and destruction) to kill foxes, feral cats and dogs, but at the same time, some scientists spoke of reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil into mainland Australia in the hope that it will prey on fox cubs, kittens etc. It was not stated how Tasmanian Devils would be trained to kill only introduced species and not kill native species. Many would question the wisdom of (re)introducing any predator likely to prey on already "decimated" fauna.
Fences have historically been used to keep rabbits and native grazing animals out and livestock in, and more recently to keep native animals in (e.g. in reserves). In the past, fences have brought humans into conflict with native wombats which can bulldoze through fences - in places wombats have been shot in order to protect fences! Fences may also isolate populations of native animal leading to undesirable levels of inbreeding and may cut off migration routes or escape routes from bush fires.
Australia is clearing its native forests at a faster rate than any other developed country in the world, not far behind Brazil, Indonesia, Congo and Bolivia. Landowners bulldozed approximately 2,000 square miles 1n 1999 (an area three times the size of London, England) for livestock grazing, wheat growing and urban development.
Around the same time, Australia's Bureau of Resource Science began to investigate the possibility of harvesting the native wildlife for food. They argued that by giving an animal a market value the animals would benefit. The farming of Saltwater Crocodiles in the Northern Territory in 1971 caused Crocdile populations to rise from 5,000 to 65,000. Dr Grahame Webb, head of Darwin-based Wildlife Management International stated "If wild animals don't pay their way, they will go." Farmed native animals, including possums and koalas, could be sold as pets, for leather/fur, for oriental medicines or for food.
There is already limited hunting of native species by aborigines, but no-one is certain what impact greater hunting or large scale farming will have on either farmed/hunted species, or more importantly, on other native species which compete for resources with the farmed/hunted species. Adding another unknown into the equation could prove to be a disastrous experiment. Where an animal has commercial value there will always be poaching; the commercial value of rhino horn and tiger parts is leading to the slow extinction of these species in the wild due to poaching by those wishing to benefit from the animals' commercial value on the black market.
A SURVEY OF THE SURVEYS
In 1993, the Australian Museum surveyed 6800 people about 'Cat Attitude' and unsurprisingly, cat-owners perceived cats to be less of a threat than did non-owners. 40% of respondents owned cats; 59% of these kept them as pets while, somewhat ironically, 9% kept them to control vermin. Although 72% of owners said that their cats were neutered, the survey suggested that the neutering rate is much lower in the wider community and many people allowed females to have kittens first. Almost 70% of owners allowed cats outdoors at night, prime hunting time, although 40% fitted their cat with a bell in a largely unsuccessful attempt to curb hunting - two thirds of cats killed native animals.
A survey by Adelaide zoologist (known to strongly dislike cats and one of the country's most vocal anti-cat campaigners) Dr David Paton stated that cats kill 3.8 billion animals and birds annually. However, Professor J R Egerton of Sydney University disputes these figures which were extrapolated from 709 survey returns (out of 2,000 sent out) from the Adelaide area, 627 of which came from ornithological society members. The response rate of 35% was unacceptably low, probably biased and there was apparently no follow up work.
Cats Assistance to Sterilise (C.A.T.S.) found that cats were often blamed when in fact the 'victim' was already dead, sick or injured. A member of Bird Care and Conservation was aware of a cat which regularly brought in dead canaries. When she investigated she found that it was scavenging dead canaries from an aviary-owner's rubbish bin. In another case, a cat retrieved a bird hit and injured by a car. Such cases raise questions about both the Museum survey and Dr Paton's survey.
Concerned about unrealistic figures, other parties have put Dr Paton's figures in perspective. Wildlife Information and Rescue Service (WIRES) in Dubbo, New South Wales applied his methods to a survey of road-killed wildlife along a single stretch of road over several days. They counted road-killed animals ranging from 'Roos to Rosellas (budgie-like birds) along this stretch of road. Using this equally unrepresentative sample they arrived at a figure of 19 road-killed animals per km of road annually. Multiplying that by the amount of road in the whole of Australia, the final figure demonstrated that cars were far more effective predators than cats!
WIRES Central Coast Branch statistics revealed 33% of wildlife deaths due to cats, 36% due to man, with the remainder due to natural causes, disease and other predators. The Central Coast area contains more pet cats which took prey home, while Dubbo has more ferals whose hunting activities cannot easily be monitored. Yet rather than blaming cats, WIRES encourages owners to keep cats indoors overnight.
Though initally used as a guideline, by August 1994 Dr Paton's survey had been discredited. Observation of hunting cats had shown that they preferred rabbit or feral pigeons. Birds and small lizards are not practical prey for a healthy feral cat. The death of countless native animals as a result of poison laid for mice during a recent mouse plague showed that the impact of cats on wildlife was overshadowed by the impact of indiscriminate killing methods employed by humans.
A 1994 study conducted by Reark research for Petcare Information and Advisory Service covered 62.7% of private dwellings throughout Australia and involved randomly selected interviews with 4000 households in all capital cities exluding Darwin. This survey reported a neutering rate of 95% (well above that reported by the Museum Survey) and the cat population of some cities had actually decreased. The cats' preference for hunting introduced species (rabbits, mice etc) rather than native wildlife was also upheld by this survey.
The Federal Government accepts figures from scientific studies which indicate that more than 4 million native animals a year are killed by feral and domestic cats.
In fact, if cats had done even a quarter of the damage claimed for the past 200 years, there would be no small native animals of any description left in Australia. While there is no denying that cats kill wildlife, cats they are also convenient scapegoats for wildlife depletion due to human activities.
It is the cat and the responsible cat-owners who are suffering. Many Australian environmentalists are now extremely 'anti-cat'. One wildlife park Warden proudly wears a cat-skin hat and gives anti-cat lectures to visitors, proclaiming that the only good cat is a dead one. All cats, both pets and ferals, are now caught in the middle of a propaganda war which has spilled over into the Australian Parliament with some MPs calling for culls, curfew and compulsory registration (the 3 Cs).
There is a problem of anti-cat propaganda disguised as "education". Some environmental groups have issued press-releases calculated to stir up anti-cat feeling. John Wamsley of Earth Sanctuaries, South Australia states that "It has been proven beyond all doubt that cats are the number 1 problem in regard to Australia's loss of wildlife" conveniently ignoring the many human activities still destroying both habitat and species at an alarming rate; yet cats are just one of many nails in the coffin. During waves of anti-cat publicity, an increased number of desexed, non-roaming pet cats disappear. Owned cats have been reported stolen and killed and, despite legal protection, culprits are rarely traced or prosecuted. Responsible cat owners have been vilified to the extent that they felt guilty about owning cats, even if their cats are confined.
UNOWNED STRAYS AND AUSTRALIAN FERALS
Habitat destruction has caused native wildlife to decline while the adaptable cat can exploit the man-made niches. Ferals and strays were considered a problem by half of the Museum survey respondents and many favoured killing ferals. Lately, it has been recommended that cats found more than one kilometre from town boundaries can be destroyed - even if tattooed, microchipped or wearing an ID tag.
In the Australian Museum survey, 61% of cat-owners and 77% of non-owners favoured killing ferals (whose numbers have been estimated at anywhere between 3 million and 30 million). Trap-neuter-return schemes may be inappropriate where wildlife is extremely vulnerable to cat depredation. New South Wales veterinarian Ross Hansford complained that the urban animal debate was getting bogged down in trivia: "It is nonsense we should catch, desex and then release feral cats ... They are a damned nuisance - we should humanely capture and euthanase them." Findings from the C.A.T.S. 6 year study on feral colonies strongly contradict his opinions and there is always the problem of the vacuum effect.
In 1992, at a cattle station in the South Western Australian outback Professor J Pettigrew of the University of Queensland shot 175 ferals in a 10 sq km area. The army shot a further 400 in three days yet a few weeks later they returned to shoot a further 200. According to Professor Pettigrew cats were pouring into the vacuum created by the extermination program. Such wholesale killing is condemned as inhumane; some of the cats killed would undoubtedly have been feeding kittens which faced a slow death through starvation or by being eaten alive by "bull-ants".
Morialta Reserve reported that the cat population had actually grown since culling. Survivors of the cull had bred and their offspring were too crafty to be shot or trapped! In contrast the trap-neuter-release of cats in 84 colonies led to an overall reduction in cat numbers as no unneutered cats were attracted to the colony and no kittens were born to replace cats which died.
In the mid-1990s, Earth Sanctuaries Ltd, usually fronted by John Wamsley (who sports his dead cat hat with pride) issued press statements regarding their proposed sanctuaries in certain districts. Those statements invariably led to anti-cat activities in the districts including bogus reports about damage done by cats and letters from professional hunters who are probably bursting to shoot a few hundred cats in the name of 'ecology'.
In the same time-frame, I was informed that the trade in cat fur may also be encouraged, presumably as an incentive for shooters/trappers. Humans may clear land, indiscriminately poison animals and other wise deplete the wildlife, but I see no bounty on the heads of land developers or ranchers who allow sheep and cattle to over-graze the land.
The Universities Federation for Animal Welfare states that total eradication of ferals is usually impossible as some cats will survive, so that the cull must be repeated time and again. In parts of Australia the feral cat population increased following culling. New cats had moved in while the survivors had bred and their offspring were too crafty to be shot or trapped! In contrast the trap-neuter-release of cats in 84 colonies led to an overall reduction in cat numbers as no unneutered cats were attracted to the colony and no kittens were born to replace cats which died. Where feasible (considering location and also a generalized antipathy towards cats), colony management has proved more effective than culling. In remote areas, the effectiveness of FTC2 in controlling bush cats has yet to be seen.
NON-LETHAL METHODS OF CAT MANAGEMENT
Veterinarian, Ross Hansford stated of urban ferals, "It is nonsense we should catch, desex and then release feral cats ... They are a damned nuisance - we should humanely capture and euthanase them."
His comments reflect an over-simplification of a complex issue. While bush cats may pose a far greater risk to wildlife, urban ferals may have less contact with indigenous species and may perform a useful function in controlling introduced vermin such as rats, mice and pigeons. In some circumstances it becomes feasible to manage colonies as the lesser of two evils.
The feral issue was raised at the Australian Veterinary Association conference where a Australian National University spokesman quoted a study into environmental and health effects of cats living on 4 rubbish dumps. Whenever cats were culled (usually six-monthly), rodent numbers increased posing an equal threat to wildlife as well as carrying zoonotic diseases. He noted that feral cats from the surrounding area quickly recolonised the dump, forming breeding colonies, indicating that culling was an ineffective long-term cat-management strategy. In such situations, trap-neuter-return schemes, such as those carried out by Cats Assistance to Sterilise (C.A.T.S.) can provide a workable alternative. Dumps attract rats which attract cats, but rodenticides pose a danger to small native animals. Unneutered cats breed, but culling simply clears room for new cats (vacuum effect). In situations where the cats perform a useful service, the establishment of small stable colonies of neutered ferals (euthanasing diseased cats) deter other (usually unneutered) cats from moving in, do not breed and continue to control rats and mice.
Australian trap-neuter-return schemes are being pioneered by C.A.T.S. in South Australia and the results of their six year study of controlled colonies are encouraging. C.A.T.S. is currently the only organisation in Australia involved in long term studies of the "Sterilise and Return to Home" (Trap-Neuter-Return) method of controlling feral colonies. Meanwhile other bodies claiming to be in favour of animal welfare are in favour of extermination programs and cat control legislation which makes our own Dangerous Dogs Act look easy-going.
C.A.T.S. neutered around 25,000 cats over 6 years and studied 10 neutered colonies where local carers arrange food and veterinary care, one such colony being the West Beach 'rock cat colony', present for 14 years. The presence of a small neutered colony, as opposed to wholesale clearance, prevented re-occupation of the territory by unneutered cats. At the time of neutering it was noted that mass eradication might have endangered then-unidentified pet cats resulting in possible prosecution for destroying an owned cat without consent.
The work of C.A.T.S. is ignored or denied by the more vociferous anti-cat campaigners. John Wamsley (Earth Sanctuaries Ltd) claims that there are no Australian organisations controlling cats by humane methods, only organisations claiming that it can be done, despite the work of C.A.T.S over the previous 6 years and similar work undertaken by a Tasmanian group. Following a British TV program, he claimed that he does not kill cats. This is in spite of boasts elsewhere of cat kills and the famous dead cat hat. Mr Wamsley claims to be not anti-cat despite a quote attributed to him that "the only good cat is a dead cat". His organisation has been accused of using press releases likely to incite anti-cat feeling and activities and the press releases may incite other parties to kill feral and pet cats indiscriminately.
The cat problem needs to be put in perspective with the human problem. Comments made by Earth Sanctuaries Limited in 1995 demonstrated the widespread refusal to acknowledge the impact of human activities in declining wildlife.
"Your view on cat is not in perspective and a I believe you would be aware of that. It has now been proven beyond all doubt that cats are the number 1 problems in regard to Australia's loss of wildlife. Australia is, as you are obviously not aware, losing mammal species faster than the rest of the world combined. There are no areas where traffic accounts for more wildlife than cats
"We, Earth Sanctuaries, have never carried out programmes against cats other than removing them from our areas. In fact our method of creating feral-proof areas means that we do not need to destroy cats as do other conservation areas. It is well known that the cat came to Australia 500 years ago. It is also well known that it did not penetrate Australia until it got help from European settlers.
There are no organisations in Australia controlling cats by humane methods as you state. There are organisations claiming that cats should be controlled by humane methods. There is a big difference."
In fact there were organisations (C.A.T.S.) controlling cats by trap-neuter-release at the time the comments were made and their work had been reported in magazines such as National Cat Magazine. Far from just claiming that cats should be controlled by humane methods, organisations were actually doing it. Trap-neuter-release is not the only method whcih can be considered humane. Live trapping and euthanasia by a trained person can be considered humane if performed properly.
Aborginal accounts suggested that the presence of cats (most likely Asian type domestic cats from shipwrecks) in some coastal parts of Australia pre-dated the arrival of Europeans, although a large scale feline presence may not have occurred (or been accurately recorded) until after 1788 (at which time European rats and mice were also arriving on ships). Finally, Earth Sanctuaries' spokesman resorted to personal attacks on cat lovers.
"You are obviously in need of someone to hate and you obviously do not care who. The total cause for this [wildlife] loss is cats. You obviously hate wildlife. You obviously have a curious interest in cats. I feel sorry for you."
The final comment is particularly telling. It is the sort of comment useful for inciting anti-cat feeling by telling people that a liking for cats automatically means a hatred of wildlife and that an interest in cats is wrong or misguided. Such comments are designed to placate people who don't want to hear that humans are partly, if not greatly, to blame for declining wildlife for the may and various reasons given earlier in this article.
It is easier (and, in some cases, politically useful) to deny that humans are a cause and to focus narrowly on one of the other causes, blaming one contributory factor as being the single cause of the problem. Resorting to personal attacks about a person's interest in cats has the effect of undermining the rest of the argument as it tends to indicate, to me, an uncertainty about the validity of one's other arguments.
It is a disturbing topic, but the Australian feral and stray population needs to be managed - humanely - both for the sake of the cats and the native animals, while voluntary measures need to be taken to control the pet population before knee-jerk legislation threatens the future of cat-ownership in Australia. However, stirring up a mob mentality is not constructive to the conservation cause and antagonises pet owners when the two parties could, and should, be working together to tackle the problem. This topic is dealt with in detail in Why Feral Eradication Won't Work.
THE 3 C'S - CULLING, CURFEW AND COMPULSORY REGISTRATION
In some areas, there is now a dusk-to-dawn cat-curfew to give the nocturnal wildlife a chance. Cats found outdoors after curfew risk being shot along with feral or 'unowned' cats.
More draconian laws, which will greatly restrict the keeping of cats, are under discussion in many areas. For example, in Queensland suggestions include compulsory microchip tagging, compulsory desexing (neutering), a curfew and a maximum of 2 cats per household (excepting registered breeders and animal shelters) which starts to sound dangerously similar to Dangerous Dogs legislation in Britain. Better education of cat owners was very much an afterthought.
There has already been talk of completely prohibiting cats in some suburbs and plans to make Canberra 'cat-free' have been voiced. No distinction is made between pet cats and ferals. Unfortunately for cat-owners, cat society/cat welfare representatives are rarely invited to consultative meetings and must try to promote responsible ownership in the face of growing anti-cat feeling and dubious survey results.
In Australia, as in other major cat-owning nations, there is a problem with pet overpopulation and stray cats. 36,000 stray and unwanted pet cats were destroyed in Victoria alone during 1992 (compared to around 40,000 throughout the whole of the UK), but many others join the feral population. Unneutered strays are highly visible in urban areas. According to the Australian RSPCA, people often did not bother looking for a lost cat, assuming it had either eloped or been run over. However, according to some Australian cat lovers "The RSPCA here are only interested in publicity for themselves, not in helping the cat situation."
Some of the methods of disposing of unwanted cats are horrific. The Hobart-based animal welfare group 'Feline' reported that in Devonport, Tasmania the City Council offers free disposal of 'unwanted cats'. Cats are put into hessian bags and left in a small metal box at the council depot until they are collected and destroyed. Cats dumped while the depot is closed may be subjected to extremes of heat or cold and must suffer unimaginable distress. The Council claims it lacks the manpower to hold onto the cats in case the owners show up, giving any cat-haters licence to dispose of somebody's pet, knowing that the owner has no way of retrieving it. The depot's sign reads: UNWANTED AND STRAY CATS MAY BE LEFT HERE BETWEEN THE HOURS OF 8 A.M. & 2 P.M. WEEKDAYS. PLEASE USE HESSIAN BAGS PROVIDED. Elsewhere, cats and kittens are shot while in the council crush machine.
Although, in some places, unidentified strays may be impounded for possible reclaim, there are places (such as at Devonport, Tasmania) where cats are not retained with the reasons cited being "lack of manpower" or "lack of facilities". Where such facilities exist, cats may be stolen and destroyed without the owners being able to retrieve them. Collars are easily removed and those cat owners living on benefit payments or pensions may be unable to afford microchipping. There is no information as to whether the Devonport facility checked for microchips or whether they checked if microchipped cats were being disposed of by the registered owner or had been taken from the street.
To tackle overpopulation, straying and indiscriminate breeding, legislators are considering the compulsory neutering of all cats not registered as breeding stock. This finds favour among non-owners and some cat owners, but would be hard to police by councils already hamstrung by tight budgets.
The Australian RSPCA recommends neutering kittens at 8-12 weeks old so that only neutered kittens would be available from pet shops, breeders and animal shelters. Kittens adopted from shelters or bought from pet shops/breeders (unless acquired as breeding stock) would already be neutered. If made compulsory, it would solve the problem of owners who allow cats to have one litter before spaying.
In 1992 Australia's first cat registration and curfew was introduced in Sherbroke, Victoria. Proposed Bills overing 'Companion Animals' and 'Feral and Nuisance Animals' now under review in Victoria include some draconian measures:
Other councils are using the Sherbroke example in formulating their own cat control laws. New South Wales are considering:
and Gold Coast City Council are considering:
As part of the compulsory registration proposals, owners must register any change of address/ownership and registrations or registration renewals could be refused, for example if a neighbour makes a complaint.
In addition to South Australia's "Dog and Cat Management Bill", local councils can introduce bye-laws governing curfews and the number of cats permitted to be kept by a household. Some concerned individuals and organisations have branded it the Dog and Cat Management Bill a "Cat Kill Bill" facilitating the killing of owned cats. Cats found within national parks or more than 1 km from a "bona fide" dwelling may be euthanased even if wearing identification. As a cat worker, I have experience of cats being snatched, their collars removed, and the cat dumped away from home, as the result of a dispute between neighbours or a malicious prank. In South Australia, such cats could easily be dumped in areas where they would be killed even if identified. Cats wearing collars may be targeted by malicious individuals because they are owned cats and therefore more easily handled.
In the Australian press, other suggestions included compulsory declawing and defanging! The press carries frequent reports of pet cats being stolen, tortured and killed as part of neighbourhood anti-cat pogroms although perpetrators are most likely using the wildlife bandwagon as an excuse to satisfy their own sadistic tendencies.
Compulsory registration of cats would probably prove counter-productive. Many owners would keep unregistered cats which then have no legal access to veterinary care including neutering! Cat legislation could lead to bureaucratic injustices; such an action taken by one council against a resident which was described:
"This [...] has been condemned on, not only animal rights grounds, but as an infringement of civil liberties. Passing laws where council officers are given the right to frighten elderly pensioners, with threats of large fines and court action, to force them into surrendering their beloved cats is not desirable in a free country such as Australia"
The Reark Survey concluded that compulsory neutering, registration and curfew are unenforceable. The cost of enforcement would be prohibitive and cause even greater animosity between cat lovers and Councils. Fewer than 50% of dog owners complied with compulsory dog registration so it is unlikely that cat registration would be any more effective.
The measures would only affect urban cats which pose less of a threat to native fauna for the simple reason that there is less native fauna in urban areas, but have little effect on stray or feral populations which remain - often literally - under fire. British readers have only to look at the Dangerous Dogs Act to see the sort of problems involved with any legislation of this sort.
While visible attempts are being made to control the pet population, there have been few co-ordinated attempts to bring the feral population under control. This is largely because the anti-cat lobby are anti-ALL-cats and pro-cat and anti-cat factions are often are too busy opposing each other to sit down and work out how to tackle the issue together.
Voluntary measures are needed in order to avoid knee-jerk legislation, for example more early age desexing of pet-quality kittens so that only desexed kittens are homed. The unwanted progeny of unneutered pets contribute to stray and feral populations. Wherever cats are kept as pets there are also unscrupulous breeders producing and disposing of kittens without considering their future or welfare (licensing of breeders or undesexed cats is an attractive, but hard-to-enforce, solution). A phrase used in relation to the cat problem is "consistent effort to educate people and change their inappropriate cultural attitudes to cats and cat ownership" which some feel is an invitation for anti-cat groups to indoctrinate the young. In theory, this means promoting responsible ownership, but in practice there are complaints that such efforts at education are hijacked by vociferous anti-cat lobbyists.
THE CAT YOU NOW OWN COULD BE YOUR LAST
After my original 1993 article about cats in Australia there was a mouse plague in parts of Australia. Poison baits laid for marauding mice killed millions of small marsupials. Some cat-lovers hoped that the cat's prowess as mouse-killer would improve its image. Sadly this did not happen. The anti-cat lobby became more vociferous and some "environmental groups" campaigned for the extermination of ferals and strays while pet cats would be subject to impossibly strict controls.
"The Cat You Now Own Could Be Your Last" was a headline in the newsletter of Tasmania's "Feline Education Line". Eighteen months previously Sherbroke, Victoria had introduced Australia's first cat registration and curfew. Other areas took their lead from this while the anti-cat lobby seemed to view it as a way of ridding the country of cats, period.
Recently, researchers from the Victorian Institute for Animal Science developed a chemical known as FTC2 which is specific to cats and kills them in a humane way. Feral cat control is now regarded as the highest priority under the Federal Government’s Threat Abatement Plan for Predation by feral cats. Until now, there has been little success in developing biological or chemical control agents to deal with the feral cat problem.
Environment Australia’s director of invasive species Gerry Maynes confirmed that trials would be under way shortly and there were encouraging signs that the toxin would be suitable for use against feral cats throughout the country.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER THREATS TO NATIVE WILDLIFE?
While measures are being taken against unowned cats, what measures are being taken against other nails in the coffin - urban sprawl, pollution, traps, trigger-happy individuals, over-intensive farming etc?
Though not innocent, cats are convenient scapegoats for a whole host of ongoing human activities which adversely affect wildlife. It may be unproductive to argue over past damage, but it is necessary to recognise that cats are not the sole cause of wildlife decline as some activists would have people believe. The activities of man have had, and continue to have, drastic effects on vulnerable wildlife. As Charlie Sherwin of the Australian Conservation Foundation says, the biggest threat to native wildlife is land clearance to meet human needs for farmland and building.
For example, the Rossers bought 790-hectares (320 acres) of rainforest in South Queensland in 1968. It is now a small dark patch of forest surrounded by recently cleared potato fields. Surrounding forest has been slashed away. The forest is home to the rare Albert’s Lyrebird and without corridors to connect it with larger forests, the colony will be hard to sustain. According to the Wilderness Society such small, isolated populations are biologically dead and may survive only 10 - 20 years. This is not an isolated case.
The rotting and burning of vegetation on cleared land accounts for 13% of Australia’s greenhouse pollution. Biodiversity as lost as a rich habitats are replaced by monocultures, crops or grazing land. Even worse is the salinity problem which threatens animal life and the livelihood of the same farmers who are clearing the land. Removal of deep-rooted forest vegetation and planting shallow-rooted crops causes groundwater to rise to the surface, bringing with it salt which poisons farmland, pollutes watercourses and damages roads and buildings. The National Dryland salinity Programme predicts that by 2050 the area ruined by salt could treble to 22,000 square miles i.e. an area almost the size of Tasmania. Fertile land is reduced to sterile land and farming activity moves elsewhere, repeating the process.
Queensland is Australia's land-clearing capital. The Stanbroke Pastoral Company, owns 50,000 square miles and 500,000 cattle in Australia and holds permits to clear 400 square miles of bush in Queensland alone. Queensland is also "frontier country" (often stereotyped as redneck country) colonised by small farmers battling against the bush. According to Felicity Wishart of the Queensland Conservation Council, there is a very strong culture of independent rights i.e. of individuals being able to do what they want with their own land - including removing native habitat. There are some conscientious land-managers who preserve habitats and native species, but they tend to live on land which has previously been cleared. It takes decades for natural habitats to develop; their land has been impoverished by clearing and farming and they have to balance keeping cattle with keeping wildlife.
In central Queensland is the Brigalow Belt, a 220-mile swathe of temperate woodland. While large tracts of World Heritage protected rainforest in its tropical north are in pristine condition, only 2.2% of the Brigalow Belt is protected. The cleared land has been over-used and though it may recover it will not reach its pre-clearance fertility level. Some cattle farmers in this area minimise land exhaustion by rotating their stock around small paddocks and allowing the re-growth of forest in other areas. The low level of protection in such areas gives less conscientious land-owners free rein to destroy woodland, causing native species to decline dramatically.
Farmers demand compensation for not clearing land, but currently there are no compensation schemes (unlike 'set-aside' schemes in parts of Europe which encourage farmers to leave areas uncultivated or even to plant woodland) . Until recently, crown land was leased to farmers on condition that they cleared a certain amount each year to make it 'productive'. The Queensland Conservation Council accepts that grants or compensation schemes are needed to encourage sustainable land management e.g. leaving uncleared corridors of deep-rooted woodland to prevent salinity and to prevent the isolation of animal populations. They recommend funding sustainable land use, including the farming of native resources or low-impact species e.g. sandalwood, nuts, kangaroos and ostriches. The states and the federal government clash over who should fund grants and compensation. Constitutionally, land management is a state issue, but its adverse consequences are federal issues.
Despite opposition, Queensland introduced legislation to control land clearing, but the state’s Labour government refused to ratify the new law for nine months during which there was "panic clearing", as farmers ripped up trees before the measures became law. The legislation prevents the clearing of endangered ecosystems on freehold land and could protect 3.5% of Queensland’s vegetation, according to the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Despite the known issues of land-clearance, landowners and legislators seek to lay the blame for species loss elsewhere e.g. by redirecting attention to the predatory habits of pet and feral cats. Habitat destruction reduces wildlife numbers and with less prey available, the impact of pest species such as foxes, cats and rats is proportionally greater. The introduced species are also far more adaptable and better able to survive on cleared land. Land clearance is tipping the scales in favour of introduced species.
It's easy to focus public attention on these species while ignoring a far more serious threat to Australian ecology. By focusing so narrowly, those who see cats as the sole enemy risk becoming blinkered to the other killers of wildlife. There are many nails in the coffin, and there is the danger that while people are trying to extract the "cat" nail from the coffin, other nails are being hammered firmly home, glad of the distraction.
SHOWING AND BREEDING
There are a number of cat clubs and shows throughout Australia and Tasmania. In some areas there are now 50% more cat clubs than in the late 1970s, however, the number of cats entered in shows has decreased from around 300 (late 70s) to 100-150 (1993). In the 70s the top award was Grand Champion. In the 80s the top award became Double Grand Champion. In 1986 Bronze Grand Champion through to Gold Grand Champion status appeared and Platinum and Diamond awards are apparently under consideration!
This is because there are now fewer challenges than in the 70s so that many cats achieve Champion status through being unopposed at enough shows. A recently introduced, and still controversial, points system has now toughened up the route to Champion Status.
Persians are popular in Australia although the trend does seem to be towards the 'American' (Ultra-type) face with the high nose break. The Siamese is also popular, these being bred for flared 'bat-ears' and narrow muzzles giving their faces a chevron-shape. Some Siamese kittens seem to be literally 'all ears'.
The importation or development of new breeds is not encouraged, however several new breeds appeared on the Australian show circuit in the 1980s: Birmans (longer faced and larger eared than we are used to seeing), British Shorthairs, Balinese, Orientals and the Devon Rex. The Ragdoll was accepted in the 1990s but cat fanciers were warned against the American Ragamuffin [sic] which an Australian Ragdoll breeder described as Ragdoll/Maine Coon crosses. The Tonkinese had a rough ride, being condemned by some as being nothing more than a Siamese-Burmese cross, in other words a moggy, which didn't breed true (in fact many breeds have variants, which is an indication of good genetic diversity).
The Bengal entered Australia in 1996 and did so amidst a storm of controversy. At one point Bengals risked being banned as having unreliable temperaments. This was based on a single stressed-out Bengal which was being exhibited. Its reaction was actually no worse than that of a stressed-out moggy but it was an anti-cat lobby's dream come true. The Australian press made much about the fact that Bengal cats are already banned in some American states (this was disproved) and that wildcat hybrids having an insatiable desire to hunt and posing a greater threat to vulnerable wildlife than existing domestic breeds (again disproved). Bans were considered, preventing the importation and breeding of dangerous Bengals. This particular debate is discussed separately in the next section.
Most of the breeds found in Australia are familiar, however, the Russian Blue is joined there by the Russian White and Russian Black; neither of which seem popular in Britain of the US (although they are bred in parts of mainland Europe). That's actually a pity because they are attractive cats.
The Spotted Mist (now called the Australian Mist and bred in both spotted and marbled patterns) can be considered the first all-Australian new breed. It was developed from Burmese/Abussinian crosses with a dash of Tabby Shorthair. Breeders are working hard to popularize this people-centred indoor-loving cat with its hazy spots on a pale background. It's worth noting that Australia's only home-grown breed, has been bred to be a laid back "no roam/no hunt" cat which is content to be an indoor only pet.
Australia almost gained a second breed of its own when a curl-eared stray kitten was found. When old enough, she produced a litter and almost died in the process. None of the kittens were curl-eared. With no possibility of a back-cross to the mother (she required emergency spaying) and apparently no brother-sister matings made, it was announced that the Australian Curl was a non-starter.
As well as the Australian-born Spotted and Marbled Australian Mists, there may be a further Australian breed called the "Cloud" which I was unable to find out more about, despite writing to the address given and searching the Internet. An advertisement with a photograph of kittens suggested a Ragdoll-type cat with longhaired and shorthaired variants.
A people-centred, indoor-loving cat such as the Australian Mist or the Ragdoll could be the solution for beleaguered Australian cat fanciers, not to mention the decimated Australian wildlife. Australia is inexorably moving towards an indoor-only lifestyle for its pet cats akin to that in America, though for very different reasons.
THE BIG BENGAL DEBATE
In 1996, the FCC of Victoria effectively (though temporarily) banned the Bengal due to "negative advice" about its temperament. It was stated that, Bengals had already been made illegal in Washington, Connecticut and Oregon in the US as the cat was a dangerous hybrid and intrinsically aggressive. In fact the Bengal hadn't been banned in these states. The wording of the Bengal breed standard that it should have an "unchallenging temperament" was taken as evidence that the breed was likely to be aggressive.
What triggered this call for a ban? A four month old Bengal exhibited (non-competition status) at the Canberra Royal reacted in the way that most cats would react following too many upsets in a short space of time. When examined, it became stressed and attempted to defend itself. Taking this as a sign of inherent aggression due to containing wildcat genes, the FCC of Victoria claimed that there were too many aggressive and temperamental Bengals and that they were just being cautious.
Those who examined the cat had probably met with plenty of stressed out cats of other breeds which reacted in the same way, but because the Bengal is unusual in that it is derived from hybridization, there was an over-reaction. Some asked whether the ban was really to do with a minute percentage of wild blood, or if it had more to do with dissuading breeders from importing new breeds into Australia in order to prevent any increase in the cat population.
A similar scare occurred in Britain when the Bengal first appeared. One daily tabloid paper wrote that they like nothing better than to be fed day old chicks and that they shouldn't be left alone with children because they are part wild! In Britain, such scare stories are soon discredited and die down quickly, but in Australia, they are a propagandist's dream come true and can rumble on for ages. Bengals are sweet-natured, well-adjusted and perfectly domesticated pet cats regardless of their wild-looking appearance. Their small percentage of wild-type genes (mostly expressed in their pelts) wouldn't make them in deranged wildlife-slaughterers, far more damaging and dangerous than Australia's existing feral cats, as reports implied.
The phrase "unchallenging temperament" were interpreted by the FCC of Victoria to mean that there was a general problem with Bengal cats' temperaments which breeders had to address. Why else would the breed standard put constraints on the temperament?
Without such constraints, the temptation to mass-produce Bengals to meet high demand might lead to cats with poor temperaments which would be detrimental to the breed as a whole. Such people might be tempted to breed "Bengal-looking" cats from wild cat stock, producing unpredictable hybrids which would be sold to unsuspecting buyers as "Bengals". By including temperament in the breed standard, such "breeders" would not be able to fob off uninformed buyers with "what do you expect, it is part-wild cat after all."
A Bengal kitten was presented at a meeting of the FCC of Victoria and proved to have a delightful temperament. After initial surveillance for any sign of temperament problems, the Bengal was finally accepted as just another very attractive breed and is now proving very popular with cat-lovers.
I am grateful to Tailwavers (Tasmania) for providing contact details and copies of surveys. I am especially indebted to Cats Assistance To Sterilise (C.A.T.S.) for their help in preparing this article and in providing details of surveys and legislation. C.A.T.S. is currently the only organisation in Australia involved in long term studies of the "Sterilise and Return to Home" (Trap-Neuter-Return) method of controlling feral colonies. Finally I am grateful to the many personal correspondents who contributed information, whether favourable or unfavourable to cats and to Australia's National Cat magazine for putting me in contact with various of their contributors.