Australia is full of cats. While cats are great pets and can bring emotional, psychological, and health benefits to owners, the animals are a scourge to native wildlife.
Cats kill a staggering 1.7 billion native animals each year and have played a major role in most of Australia’s 34 mammalian deaths. They continue to pose a threat to at least another 120 species.
A recent parliamentary inquiry into the problem of wild and domestic cats in Australia has confirmed that the issue is indeed of national concern. The final report, released last week, calls for a stronger, more effective, more diverse and coordinated response to policy, management and research.
As ecologists, we have studied the Australian cat dilemma together for more than 50 years. We welcome most of the report’s recommendations, but in some areas it does not go far enough as it lacks important opportunities to make a difference.
Night curfews are not good enough
The report recommends that Australia’s 3.8 million domestic cats be subject to night curfews. This measure would benefit native nocturnal mammals, but it will not save birds and reptiles that are mainly active during the day.
Wes Mountain / The Conversation, CC BY-ND
Pet cats kill 83 million native reptiles and 80 million native birds in Australia each year. From a wildlife perspective, the only responsible option is to keep pet cats in check around the clock.
It’s clearly possible: a third of Australian pet cat owners already keep their pets in check at all times.
Preventing pet cats from roaming is also good for cats that live longer and safer lives when kept indoors. It would also significantly reduce the number of people who develop cat-related diseases each year.
Read more: Cats carry diseases that can be fatal to humans and it costs Australia $ 6 billion each year
Other strategies proposed in the report to improve pet cat management include pet cat registration, subsidized early-age deexization programs, public awareness campaigns to promote responsible pet cat ownership, and improving the coherence of regulations and laws at national level.
The report is also strongly against “trap-neuter-release” programs, in which non-owned cats are desexualized in urban areas and then released. We agree with this statement as these programs cannot reduce the population of stray cats or prevent these cats from killing wildlife and spreading disease.
We need more wildlife paradises
One of the main recommendations of the study is a national conservation project called “Project Noah”. This would include an ambitious expansion of the existing Australian reserve network, which is free of introduced predators, both on islands and in fenced areas on the mainland. The reserves provide sanctuaries – or a fleet of “arks” – for endangered native wildlife.
This action is vital. Research from 2019 found that there are more than 65 native mammal species and subspecies in Australia that are difficult or impossible to survive in places with very few cats or foxes. These include Bilby, Numbat, Quokka, Dibbler, and Black-Footed Rock Wallaby.
McGregor / Arid Recovery
Australia already has more than 125 ports, 100 of which are islands. These have prevented the extinction of 13 mammal species such as Boodies and rats with larger stick nests. In total, these ports have protected populations of 40 species of mammals that are susceptible to cats and foxes.
This is a good start, but we need more investment in ports to prevent extinction. More than 25 species are very sensitive to the predators of cats and foxes, but are not yet protected in the port network. This includes the central stone rat, which is more likely to become extinct within 20 years without new measures.
In addition, some species, such as the long-nosed potoroo, are only found in one port. To avoid problems such as inbreeding and to ensure that disasters such as a fire in a single port do not kill an entire species, each species should be represented in adequate population sizes in multiple ports.
The report did not specify how the ports network would be expanded. However, research from 2019 found that any species that need to be protected must be brought into at least three ports. Australia needs at least 35 new, strategically located islands or fenced off areas on the mainland.
Australian Wildlife Conservancy
What about the rest of the country?
Ports cover less than 1% of Australia. So what we do in the other 99% of the landscape – including nature reserves like national parks – is of vital importance.
However, the parliamentary investigation report lacks clear recommendations for a more comprehensive expansion of cat controls, including in important nature reserves such as the Kakadu National Park.
The report reaffirms the need to kill feral cats and to set new targets for culling without specifying what the targets are. We agree that some culls are important, especially in locations with very endangered, endangered wildlife.
In many parts of Australia, comprehensive habitat management is a cheaper way to reduce harm to cats. This includes making the habitat less suitable for cats and more suitable for native wildlife by, for example, reducing the number of rabbits, the frequency of fires and grazing by wild herbivores such as cattle and horses.
Research has shown that fewer rabbits lead to fewer cats. Rabbits are a favorite prey of many cats, so they increase the number of wild cats, which then also hunt native wildlife.
Read more: One cat, one year old, 110 native animals: lock up your pet, it’s a killing machine
And cats attract areas with less vegetation because it is easier to catch prey. These areas include those with frequent fires or where wild herbivores have reduced vegetation through grazing and trampling.
A better habitat with more vegetation gives native animals places to hide from predators, as well as more food and shelter. It’s a bit like giving the last little pig a brick house instead of trying to fight the wolf with your fist.
A big step forward
Over the past two decades, Australia has slowly woken up to the damage cats do to nature. This has led to more research, management and policy to address the problem.
Some state governments, environmental groups and scientists have worked hard to develop options to control wild cats, and Australia’s 2015 Endangered Species Strategy did a lot to raise national awareness and resources on the problem.
Read More: Don’t Let Her Out: 15 Ways To Keep Your Domestic Cat Happy
The parliamentary inquiry is an important step forward and many of the recommendations are relevant. Overall, however, the recommendations require gradual improvement.
Australian law clearly does not provide a wildlife safety net. The feline problem is part of a larger problem in managing habitat, biodiversity, and threats to nature – and in solving issues that require major changes.