Pets or Pests? How Australia Tackles its Two Cat Populations

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Julia Bergin, a reporter based in the Northern Territory.

No amount of gentle coaxing, regimented training, rehabilitation or punishment could ever prompt cats to ignore their killer instincts. Like their feral counterparts, even the most domesticated felines threaten any potential prey they find.

In Australia, where feral cat populations are managed with substantial amounts of federal money, time and resources, the management of domestic animals — specifically, pet cats — falls to state and local governments.

But there is growing pressure from local councils and animal management groups to unify efforts to monitor both populations, because house cats breed just as fast, eat just as much and can wreak as much havoc on native wildlife as feral cats.

If the nation is serious about cracking down on feral cats, said Nell Thompson, the secretary of the Australian Institute of Animal Management, the Australian government should stop separating their handling from that of domestic cats. “Both are national issues,” she said.

The challenge, she added, has more to do with humans than cats. Ms. Thompson said the current approach is plagued by poor communication with cat owners, poor funding from governments and poor data collection.

In Australia’s desert center, the Alice Springs Town Council has a dedicated team for managing domestic cats. The council levies hefty penalties for wandering house cats (the offense of “animal at large” comes with an $880 fine), employs cat traps and a web of trail cameras and promotes the use of “catariams,” or caged enclosures.

Further afield, in remote Indigenous communities, cat populations have boomed. Even as dedicated ranger programs are in place to hunt, bait, kill — and in some places eat — feral cats, annual growth rates for domestic cats are up as much as 250 percent.

That’s because in Indigenous communities, feral cat hunters often double as domestic cat owners, taking feral kittens as pets.

Dr. Brooke Kennedy, a Kamilaroi woman who is leading research on cat ownership in remote Northern Territory Indigenous communities, said that the distinction between cats to kill and cats to keep was rooted in a cultural belief that every female animal should “experience birth” before it died. That’s why there were no qualms in the community about killing a mother cat, but kittens were spared.

As part of her work in the area, Dr. Kennedy moved from house to house gathering data on pet populations, their desexed status and owners’ desire for sterilization of their animals.

“How many dogs do you have? How many cats do you have? Are they desexed or not? Would you like them desexed?” she would ask, to which the answer was routinely: “No, not this time; next time.”

“You come back, they’ve had a litter of kittens, and now they’re happy for the cat to be desexed,” Dr. Kennedy said.

Brooke Rankmore, a former conservationist who is now the chief executive of the nonprofit Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities, said these repeat household checks had successfully accelerated desexing programs and boosted community awareness about the speed of reproduction and the impact of a cat let loose on the environment.

“Each of these communities is like a dripping tap,” Ms. Rankmore said, “and if we don’t have veterinary services there desexing companion animals, then they’re a source of population into our remote landscapes.”

Like some of Australia’s states and cities, various local councils have toyed with mandating desexing programs and caps on the number of animals per household. But in reality, rollout of “two-pet policies” has been haphazard, stilted and largely ineffective.

So how do you balance the detrimental environmental effects of domestic cats with the rights of owners to keep pets and decide whether to desex them?

Dr. Kennedy is clear: Without investment in sustained relationships with Indigenous pet owners to ensure they’re part of the process, efforts to bolster veterinary access, desexing, and education will fail.

“Relationships are so important,” Dr. Kennedy said. “I can come in there and suggest desexing their cat, and they’d think about it. Whereas if you turned up tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, desex your cat’, they’d tell you to piss off.”

In big cities, Ms. Thompson urged urban policymakers to approach animal management like the rural animal management nonprofit does in remote Indigenous communities: issuing fewer mandates, using better cat demography data, pursuing more follow-through with pet owners and becoming part of national cross-sector conversations.

Now for our stories of the week.

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