Outdoor cats are predators effective enough to wipe out species


Cat curfews creep in as Australia clamps down on wildlife killers

Identified as the main predator threatening native species, the pets have been hit by lockdowns in many states

March 4 2023, The Sunday Times

Australia is a big place, but not if you’re a cat. Strict curfews banning pet felines from prowling the streets at night are springing up across the country to protect native wildlife. Some councils have forced owners to keep them permanently cooped up in their homes or in enclosures outside.

Australia is thought to be home to almost five million domestic cats as well as three million strays, classed as pests and routinely culled. Together they have helped wipe out 27 native species, from the pig-footed bandicoot to the desert rat kangaroo, since being brought to the country by European settlers in the early 1800s.

With dozens of other species from the greater bilby to the night parrot now under threat, many councils have banned households from allowing their cats to roam free. Owners face a patchwork of red tape, including restrictions on the number of cats per household and rules stipulating that owners must exercise them on a leash if they want the animals to leave the property.

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Councils also have the power to introduce curfews or full cat lockdowns in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Western Australia and New South Wales — the only states where there are no such provisions — are under growing pressure from wildlife campaigners and local officials to fall into line.

Adin Lang, a councillor in the port city of Fremantle, near Perth, has been leading calls for tougher restrictions.

“I don’t mind cats,” he said. “I understand they’re an important companion animal. We just want to keep them indoors.”

According to Lang, night curfews are pointless as cats “kill in the day and night”. Locking them up 24/7, he insists, is the only answer.

It is a view shared by ecologists and wildlife charities including the RSPCA, which also argues that this will lead to longer and healthier lives for the cats themselves.

Despite resistance from many owners who believe it is cruel, the cat curfew has enjoyed strong support from those who want to protect native wildlife or are fed up with neighbourhood cats using their flowerbeds for their daily ablutions.

Fremantle introduced a law in June 2020 that banned cats from certain public areas including parks, beaches, river reserves and golf courses, while traps, typically baited with tinned tuna, are set up to catch cats that stray into bushland.

The council then voted unanimously last June to ban cats from all public property including roads, verges, footpaths and car parks — but was rejected by Western Australia’s state government on the basis it effectively confined cats to their home property and infringed on the rights of pet owners.

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In New South Wales, 14 councils — including the Blue Mountains and the coastal city of Wollongong near Sydney — have voted for stricter regulations, only to meet with similar resistance from the state government.

In contrast, cat curfews have been widely adopted in the Australian Capital Territory, which imposed a 24-hour cat curfew across Canberra on all cats born after June 30 last year.

Cats are only allowed outside the property if they are kept on a leash. The state government had already introduced 24-hour cat curfews for felines of all ages in 17 suburbs.

In Victoria, Wellington Shire will become the latest council to enforce a similar policy for all domestic cats from July. Errant cats will be impounded and households hit with hefty fines.

This may all seem a little over the top — but ecologists argue that cats are devastating predators in Australia, which has the highest rate of mammal extinction in the world.

As cats and other invasive predators, such as foxes, were only introduced less than 250 years ago, native wildlife has not evolved to deal with them.

Pet cats kill an estimated 390 million animals, reptiles and birds a year, the majority of which are native. This equates to an average of 186 per year by each domestic cat able to roam. Stray, feral cats are far more prolific, killing an estimated 748 reptiles, birds and mammals a year each, according to the same 2020 study from Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.

“Australia has been like a buffet for cats,” said James Trezise, conservation director of the Invasive Species Council.

In the spring of 2018 in Mandurah, Western Australia, one unregistered, sterilised male cat caused the total collapse of a protected breeding colony of threatened fairy terns, which abandoned 111 nests.

Still, not everyone is thrilled about the idea of locking them all up. Petitions against cat curfews have been lodged by owners, including in Knox City in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, which introduced a 24-hour feline lockdown last year.

A survey conducted by the Western Australia government in 2019 found that 73 per cent of respondents — but only 49 per cent of cat owners — supported 24-hour curfews.

Emma Hurst, a Sydney-based MP for the Animal Justice Party in New South Wales, believes compulsory cat containment laws represents a “death sentence” for many pet cats who escape, while also penalising low-income households that cannot afford to pay fines for their cats to be released from the pound.

As a cat owner herself, she says households should be educated about the importance of keeping them at home to protect wildlife. “Rather than a knee-jerk reaction of penalising people for letting cats wander the streets, we need to make sure they are desexed, while registering and microchipping should be free,” she said.

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