Why are so many headaches and so much heartache caused by urban and suburban cat management programs? Well, for one, cats are Australia’s second favourite pet, making lethal management programs hugely unpopular with the public.
And crucially, they fail to solve the problem of stray cats.
The reason they fail miserably is simple. When cats are removed from a location to be rehomed or euthanised, other cats quickly move in to the vacant environment. In short, cats live where cats can live. And they’ve lived like this for as long as we’ve lived in cities.
The myth of the ‘feral’
Free-roaming cats tend to be portrayed as hissing and biting beasts, big enough to eat a Volkswagen. The reality is truly ‘feral’ cats (who lives without any human interaction or dependance) simply don’t exist in urban or suburban environments.
Take a walk down the corridors of your local ‘kill’ shelter and you’ll actually find a mix of moggies, nearly all of which display varying degrees of friendliness. They are largely pet cats that, for one reason or another, have been separated from their families or lived in close proximity to people their entire lives.
Some may have been housepets right up until the moment they were captured and impounded. Some might have been regular visitors at caring households or living off occasional handouts from people who just didn’t want to see them go hungry. Others may have been born wild, but learned to live in a busy community where cars rush and kids play.
Regardless of their histories, these cats deserve compassion and care.
Free-roaming cats – not so feral
Cats contribute more than we know
People who see ‘kill’ as the only cat management solution are overlooking one vital factor – the role of cats in creating a healthy community by controlling the mouse and rat population.
Protecting the seabirds of Macquarie Island
When Tasmania's Parks and Wildlife Service removed all the feral cats (around 400 to 500) from Macquarie Island, in an effort to protect seabirds, the results were devastating. The population of rats, mice and rabbits exploded, destroying much of the fragile vegetation that the birds depend on for shelter and nesting, and causing major erosion and landslips.
The British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology reported that it caused environmental devastation that would cost authorities AU$25 million to remedy.
“Between 2000 and 2007, there has been widespread ecosystem devastation compromising decades of conservation effort,” the report stated. “The unintended consequences of the cat-removal project show the dangers of meddling with an ecosystem, even with the best of intentions, without thinking long and hard.”
A $25 million baiting program to kill the rats and mice involved air dropping poison on a large scale. Unfortunately, kelp gulls, giant petrels, black ducks and skuas also took the bait and started dying. After just eight percent of the poison had been dropped, the body count had reached 431 birds of six different species.
No one would advocate the large-scale use of poisons in urban areas, so without the presence of free-roaming cats, we would see many more rats and mice enjoying the urban life.
Cleaning up after Christchurch’s earthquakes
When a series of earthquakes devastated Christchurch in February 2011, the underground homes of city-dwelling rats and mice were shaken up and destroyed, bringing thousands of them on to the streets and into evacuated buildings. Breeding and feeding on food waste, the population of rats and mice surged. The city was theirs, but not for long.
Rats in Christchurch
The resident free-roaming cats of Christchurch had largely survived the quakes. As they emerged looking for food and people, animal welfare groups made the decision to leave the cats to do what they do best – manage the city’s vermin.
The community cats were desexed and returned to the earthquake site. And for the most part, Christchurch’s earthquake rat disaster was thwarted, preventing the nightmare scenario of an exploding population of rats and mice spreading diseases from broken sewage systems. That surely marks one of the greatest triumphs in animal welfare history.
Good cat management is a matter of maths, not death
Showing respect to all cats (regardless of their ownership status) by desexing, instead of killing, is an effective way of managing cat populations and improving the welfare of cats already living in our communities.
It’s already working over here…
Bunbury WA launched a cat desexing program called ‘Sex and the City’ targeting low income earners, and areas with a high populations cats. After just two years of the program, they had 'run out of kittens' at the local pound! Bunbury are looking to continue to build on this program into the future, since it has proved so successful in managing their community's cats in a humane fashion, all while gaining the overwhelming support of animal lovers.
And over there…
The City of Albuquerque has just celebrated their one-year anniversary of not killing a single cat. Every cat that was unable to live as a housepet, was desexed and returned to the location where they were collected – allowing community members who were caring for the cats (just like Other Cat) to continue to do so.
Empty cat enclosures in the City of Albuquerque
(Photo credit – Best Friends Animal Society)
Below is an image of cats being desexed by the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at the University of Florida.
This team has the capacity to desex 150 to 300 cats per day. Over a year, can you imagine what that does to the stray breeding population? It puts a full-stop to it!
Here we have Altered Tails Sterilization Clinic in Phoenix.
They surpassed their goal of 10,000 spay/neuter surgeries in 2012 with a total of 10,005!
And here we see a UC Davis veterinary student shaving the hindquarters of a cat to be desexed as part of Elk Grove's program to curb its population of cats.
Maureen McCann, Elk Grove's animal control supervisor, says,
"We're trying to be compassionate and strike a balance between both sides. It doesn't make sense for these cats to go to shelters, where they have a slim chance of survival.” Ms McCann said her department could never kill enough cats to eradicate outdoor colonies. She also added, "Cats are excellent mousers, making them an amazing green resource for rodent control.”
So, how do we get our shelters in Australia to look the same?
We simply learn from those who have done the math and got their large-scale, targeted desexing programs right.
We also learn to accept a simple truth. Throughout history, cats have worked alongside humans as barn cats, railway and station cats, in shops and stores, cathedrals and pubs. Cats live where humans live. Finding ways to manage their populations, while showing appreciation and compassion toward them, should be the goal of any humane cat management program.
To find out how you can help Australia make the move towards a more humane cat management solution, take a look at PetRescue’s Community Cat Program.
Or watch this video on humane cat programs and animal management
A few famous community cat programs
For the last 25 years, a colony of cats has helped keep the famous Disneyland Resort’s grounds rodent-free. No one is quite sure when the cats moved in, but free-roaming cats have made their home here for at least a quarter century, probably since the park opened in 1955.
Rather than try to evict them, Disneyland staff have set an example as a corporate giant, embracing the cats as an integral part of the park’s everyday operations.
“We view them as partners. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship with them,” explains Gina Mayberry, who oversees the Circle D Ranch where Disneyland’s animals are housed.
The cats, or ‘natural exterminators’ as she often calls them, see to it that Disneyland’s rodent population is kept in check. Aided by local organisations, including FixNation, Disneyland developed a lasting protocol for the humane care of the resort’s cats.
Source: The LA Times
The numbers of cats living under the Atlantic City boardwalk once nearly reached 300. That was until Alley Cat Allies, a Washington, D.C. based feral cat advocacy group, got involved in 2000 and began trapping and spaying or neutering the cats, ending their reproductive cycles.
They were returned to their outdoor homes, and caretakers ensured they had food, water and proper shelter. Today, the stabilised colony is aging peacefully. About 100 cats remain, and three of the more senior cats died of age-related conditions this summer.
Source: Philly News
Longwood Gardens is among the greatest gardens in the world, known as one of the finest collections of trees in the United States and one of the first public parks of enormous botanical significance.
Eleven cats patrol Longwood Gardens, from the Nursery to the Peirce-du Pont house. Each cat has an assigned area of the Garden and a human caretaker. The responsibilities these felines take on are varied. Their primary job is on the Rodent Control Task Force, but they also work as greeters, work supervisors, lap warmers and highly skilled catmint pruners. They work in exchange for food, shelter, and a health care plan.
Source: Longwood Gardens Website
A veritable institution for decades, the Parliament Hill cat sanctuary has been disbanded at the request of the volunteers who’ve been managing it. In its heyday, the sanctuary provided a home for more than two dozen felines. But desexing over the years has reduced the population to such an extent that, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, only four cats remained. The decision was made to shut down the sanctuary and the few remaining and aging animals were adopted by volunteers.
(Thanks to PoundCats for their lovely puss cat shots)