Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that common sense has momentarily prevailed, in a small win for conservation.
An old friend of mine, who is now a councillor with the Moreland City Council (which covers ~51km2 north of Melbourne city), recently posted on her Facebook page that the council was considering trialling a TNR approach, and what did her constituents think of that? For those not familiar with it, TNR refers to the “trap-neuter-release” (or trap-neuter-return) method which attempts to control feral cat populations by desexing cats trapped by residents, then “returning them to their natural environment”, as poetically phrased by the Moreland Leader newspaper. Don’t even get me started on the concept of feral cats being part of “the natural environment”…
Many residents posted comments in response to the online newspaper article covering the proposal, with the usual spectrum of opinions being represented (101 in total!):
“These cats have done nothing wrong, they are a result of heartless thoughtless humans dumping their unwanted animals in the bush to fend for themselves”
“Dear Stray / Feral Cat, If you promise to behave yourself and only eat pest mice, rats and other introduced pest species then we are happy to have you as part of our ecosystem.
Dear Concerned Resident, Umm don’t tell anyone this but as the name implies I am a Stray / Feral cat I kill indiscriminately and for fun. I don’t care if it’s a pest species or a Ring Tail possum or Rainbow Lorikeet I just can’t help myself.”
Others who saw my resulting rant on said councillor’s Facebook page had the same reaction: “WHAT??? They can’t be serious?!? Surely that’s not legal!!” Apparently not, and thankfully, the Department of Primary Industries has stepped in and said that such a program would be illegal under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, because:
“It is not sufficient to desex and return a cat to a life of disease and neglect and we do not support such a program” (Dr. Carole Webb, DPI – the Leader article on the announcement is here).
To me, the logic behind this decision is a bit off – there is always so much concern for the wellbeing of the cats, not the animals that are going to become their meals once released. We know that cats have an immeasurable impact on native wildlife and I think it’s really sad that some people, based on their comments, seemed to think that urban areas like Moreland no longer support native species worth sparing from the newly neutered cats. I think that if you look hard enough you’ll at least find many native bats, lizards, frogs and birds alongside the rats and the mynas in these areas. The concept that feral cats only eat pests, and that for some reason things like pigeons warrant less ethical consideration than cats, is rather perverse. At least the right decision has been made.
Having said that, many comments made by the public stated that the effectiveness of TNR in controlling feral cat populations had been demonstrated overseas. I’d like to see the evidence for this, because here are the findings of a report that Dr. Elizabeth Denny and Prof. Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney put together for the Invasive Animal CRC:
“Advocates of such programs (Scott et al 2002; Levy et al 2003; Levy et al 2004) are adamant that TNR, combined with an adoption component, can be successful at reducing cat populations if sufficient resources and time are allowed. However, such results have rarely been demonstrated, irrespective of resources (Foley et al 2005)… The one thing that all researchers in the area of TNR agree on is that the technique is unlikely to be effective in widely dispersed, open cat populations, as occurs throughout much of the Australian mainland.”
This issue tends to cause great emotion, as people think of their own precious pet cats, which they personally ensure stay inside and don’t run about depleting our fauna. Good for them. Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that because of many irresponsible owners, feral cats remain a huge threat to native species, as well as human health by acting as vectors for things like toxoplasmosis. Until we can control the way these people manage their pets (and compulsory desexing would be a good start), we cannot control the problem. Conducting TNR on a small proportion of the feral population is not the answer.
New evidence! This just out, 11/01/2103: A new study published in Conservation Biology which uses Hawaii as a case study shows that TNR is likely to be ineffective and expensive as a means of controlling cat populations, and concludes that “reducing the rate of abandonment of domestic cats appears to be a more effective solution for reducing the abundance of feral cats.” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01935.x/abstract
Denny, E. A., and Dickman, C. R. (2010) Review of cat ecology and management strategies in Australia. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Canberra, p36. http://www.feral.org.au/review-of-cat-ecology-and-management-strategies-in-australia/
A long postscript:
Coincidentally, I stumbled upon this statement in a paper I was reading today as part of a review (not on cats) that myself and others are carrying out. I would like to direct it to all those I’ve had pub arguments with, who like to say that dogs are just as bad as cats:
Six reasons why cats differ from canids (May & Norton 1996, and references therein):
1. They have a partially arborial habit (I would paraphrase this as “they can eat things in trees”)
2. They have excellent night vision, unlike the canids, which rely on highly developed olfactory senses.
3. When live prey are available, they do not rely on water, so can persist in the arid zone
4. They prey more heavily upon birds and reptiles than canids (although the avian component of the diet is still considered to be minimal)
5. They appear to be more selective in their choice of prey than canids
6. Unlike canids, cats are generally not scavengers (my interpretation: they kill prey instead of eating what’s already had the gong)
May, S. A., and T. W. Norton (1996) Influence of fragmentation and disturbance on the potential impact of feral predators on native fauna in Australian forest ecosystems. Wildlife Research 23, 387-400.