Recognising the threat of feral cats
Australia is home to one of the most biodiverse ecologies on the planet with unique flora and fauna in abundance. Many of these have evolved on our continent for thousands of years and smaller native mammals have learned to adapt to their environments. Throughout this inquiry, the Committee has learned that the impact of introduced species at European settlement, cats in particular, has caused a significant decline in the populations of many smaller native mammals. In some cases, predation by cats has been the catalyst for extinction.
This Chapter summarises the Committee’s findings and views on the inquiry and makes recommendations.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government recognise and prioritise the problem of feral cats in Australia consistent with its status as a matter of national environmental significance, that must be addressed effectively to ensure the continued survival of Australia’s native wildlife and ecological communities.
Conduct of a body of work
In the Committee’s view, there is a body of work that needs to be undertaken by the Australian Government to develop a consistent national definition of cats; improve understanding of the prevalence and impact of cats, including their capacity to carry and spread disease; and evaluate emerging cat control methodologies.
The Committee recognises concerns raised by inquiry stakeholders that classifications for cats varied across Commonwealth, state, territory and local legislative and regulatory instruments. This makes consistent approaches difficult, and may constrain cat management practices at the local government and vet level including decisions about returning domestic cats to their homes or taking strays to animal management facilities.
In the Committee’s view, given the variance in, or lack of, legislative definitions, an agreed legislative definition is a logical starting point in developing a more nationally consistent way of managing the prevalence and impact of cats. The Committee notes support from inquiry contributors for the definition proposed by RSPCA Australia which, when considered alongside the definition used by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), may provide some guidance.
In seeking to reach consensus on the definition and classification of cats across levels of government, the Committee is of the view that the Australian Government should canvass the perspectives of stakeholders including governments, researchers and animal welfare practitioners. A nationally agreed definition of cats could then be adopted for incorporation into the relevant cat management legislation and regulatory framework of each state and territory. The same definition should also be incorporated into Commonwealth instruments such as the Threatened Species Strategy and National Declaration: Feral Cats as Pests.
The prevalence and impact of cats
The prevalence of feral, stray and domestic cats in Australia is significant, with cats being found across the nation in all landscapes and environments. The Committee acknowledges the work of the National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Recovery Hub (TSRH), cited by many inquiry contributors, to establish credible estimates of the prevalence of cats. The headline result of this research—that cats are prevalent across the entire continent—is sobering and leads to the conclusion that more research on prevalence is required to support targeted cat management strategies. A starting point should be the establishment of prevalence estimates for each state and territory, supplemented with further analysis on geographic presence. The Committee notes that such estimates will vary due to climate and seasonal variability and the availability of prey.
The Committee acknowledges the many examples of species impacted by cat predation provided during the inquiry, however, it was not possible for the inquiry to examine the individual impacts on each species. The sheer numbers of native and non-native animals that are killed on a daily and annual basis are staggering and should be of concern to all Australian governments and environmental policy makers. Such statistics are a stark reminder of the need to improve policy and cat control strategies across Australia.
The consequences of the bushfires in 2019-20 will be felt throughout Australia for many years to come. Estimates of the loss of native animals from these events are sadly counted in the billions. One of the issues raised with the Committee during the inquiry was that native wildlife were more vulnerable to fall prey to feral cats on barren landscapes following the bushfires, where there are fewer places to hide.
Research on prevalence, impact and control
The Committee considers that while Australian Government funded research agencies such as TSRH are best placed to manage more in-depth research on the prevalence and impact of cats, there is ample invasive species research expertise in Australia’s university sector which could be drawn upon to develop collaborative projects.
It is also imperative that the Australian government consider how this research can be more quickly translated into practical outcomes for cat management through both funding mechanisms and other in-kind assistance. Ongoing commitments towards research to better understand the impacts of emerging feral cat control methodologies, such as gene drive technology, will place Australia at the forefront of international research efforts.
The Committee emphasises that procedures, testing and cat control techniques should be carried out in accordance with the highest ethical standards, ensuring humane treatment and consistent with the laws of each jurisdiction.
Pathogens and disease control
The Committee was interested to learn about the impacts of toxoplasmosis and other cat-borne diseases on Australian birds, mammals and farm animals. The Committee considers that it is vital that more is learned about these diseases and that Australia’s world class scientific researchers are well-placed to capitalise on this, given appropriate resources.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government undertake a body of work to improve understanding of the impact of feral, stray and domestic cats in Australia by:
a. Collaborating with state and territory governments and other relevant stakeholders to develop and adopt a consistent definition of feral, stray and domestic cats, to be applied across national, state, territory and local government legislative and regulatory frameworks relating to cats.
b. Commissioning further research on:
i. the prevalence, impact and control of feral, stray and domestic cats including in urban environments;
ii. emerging cat control methodologies such as gene drive technology;
iii. the impacts and management of toxoplasmosis and other cat-borne diseases on native species and productive farmland; and
iv. the relationship between habitat degradation and cat predation, including with respect to bushfire impacts.
Strategy, planning and resourcing
The Committee recognises the importance of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) in protecting and conserving Australia’s environment and biodiversity. Key elements of the Act allow for the identification of feral cats as a key threatening process to native wildlife and ecological communities, and the development of a Threat Abatement Plan (TAP) to lessen the risks posed by feral cats on these. The Committee notes that the review of the EPBC Act is underway and looks forward to its final report, including a focus on how the EPBC Act can be strengthened to better protect Australia’s threatened species and ecological communities from predation by feral cats.
The Committee is of the view that, separate from the review of the EPBC Act, there is scope for the Australian Government to strengthen and better align its strategy, planning and resourcing to ensure that its response to the overall issue of feral cats is appropriate and proportionate to the problems identified. As such, the Committee is of the view that the overall strategy in this respect should be recast to address a number of issues.
Threat Abatement Plans
The Committee is concerned that the current Threat Abatement Plan (TAP) has shortcomings that should be addressed by the Australian Government in a new and updated Plan.
First, the Australian Government should consider whether and how the TAP’s objectives can be adequately evaluated. While the Committee understands that feral cats are one of multiple threats for some threatened species, the primary purpose of the TAP should be to assess the means by which the threat of feral cats is reduced. The development of recovery plans (see below) would seem to be an example of how the effectiveness of threat abatement could be measured.
Second, a TAP that fails to include an obligation to implement or resource actions would seem in the Committee’s view to defeat its purpose. While the Committee understands that the allocation of resources may need to be assessed in line with normal Budget processes, the TAP should be resourced as a priority given the significance of the issue. In developing an updated TAP, the Australian Government should assess the level of resourcing required to abate the feral cat threat, to ensure that the Plan is fully operational and that responsibilities for implementation are clearly allocated.
Third, the Committee notes commentary from DAWE that to action each of the TAP’s objectives requires the development of regional natural resource management plans and site-based plans. In the Committee's view, a new iteration of the TAP should obligate the Australian Government to work with states and territories to develop complementary and localised plans. A new TAP would also strengthen the role of the Threatened Species Commissioner. In framing its response to better managing feral cats, the Australian Government should monitor and have regard to lessons and best practices arising from comparative international programs such as New Zealand’s ‘Predator Free 2050’ strategy.
The Committee was surprised to learn that many threatened species subject to predation by feral cats did not have current recovery plans in place. While the Committee understands that the development of recovery plans requires careful assessment and planning; a clear, systemic plan for how and when recovery plans will be developed, finalised and implemented does not seem apparent. Where they have been finalised, the Committee notes stakeholder concerns that an obligation for their implementation does not exist.
In the Committee’s view there is a shortfall between the Australian Government’s intention to protect threatened species predated by cats and its enactment of the necessary plans to do so. In the Committee’s assessment, based on the previously cited figures of native wildlife killed by cat predation each year, the likelihood of further losses of wildlife or even extinction is high. The ecological costs are unlikely to be evident until assessed by future generations of Australians.
Threatened Species Strategy
The Committee is encouraged by the work conducted by DAWE and the Threatened Species Commissioner, including the work now underway to develop a new Threatened Species Strategy and related Action Plan. The Committee received compelling evidence that there is an insufficient nexus between the current Threatened Species Strategy and the outcomes which it seeks to achieve. As such, the Committee believes that the new iteration of the Strategy should include more realistic targets focused on the rehabilitation of threatened species and ecological communities rather than only on the numbers of cats exterminated.
In addition, targets such as the culling of two million cats by the year 2020 need to be accompanied by details making clear how they will be achieved, resourced and reported. The Australian Government should not resile from its strategy of culling cats where necessary. A well-targeted culling program will buy time for threatened species and ecological communities as better feral cat control measures are developed. However, as noted in Chapter 3, culling targets need to be revised to ensure these reflect current feral cat prevalence data.
As outlined in Chapter 4, widespread support existed for the expansion of Australia’s network of predator-free fences and islands. In the Committee’s view, both mechanisms are seemingly very effective in the rehabilitation of threatened species and as a deterrent to the re-emergence of feral cats, once eradicated. A revised Threatened Species Strategy should account for this expansion, providing details of how it will be achieved, resourced, and outcomes reported.
Commentary on cat control methodology
A broad range of methods exist for the control of feral cats from the traditional trapping, hunting and shooting to the experimental, such as gene drive technology. The Committee does not want to single out a particular method as being more or less effective: it is clear from the evidence received that multiple approaches undertaken together are the most effective approach. The Committee does however wish to address a number of issues in relation to some of the methodologies raised in evidence.
The Committee acknowledges the emergence of new feral cat control methodologies including Felixer grooming traps and gene drive technology. While there is much more research and testing to be done, the Committee wishes to make clear that new technologies must be safe to use, treat animals humanely and ethically and have limited impact on native species and habitats.
Predator-free conservation areas
The Committee acknowledges the effectiveness of islands and predator-free fenced areas as one of the most effective short- and medium-term strategies to prevent the further loss of endangered and threatened species. The Committee has seen the effectiveness of these at locations such as Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. The Committee notes the work of Australian Wildlife Conservancy and other conservation groups to establish feral cat-free areas and reintroduce threatened species into them.
The Committee notes support for the further development of predator-free fencing, but also acknowledges that the fences are resource intensive and expensive. However, given the extent of the feral cat problem in Australia, the Committee considers expansion of predator-free fencing a worthwhile investment, to ensure the longer term viability of many threatened species and to buy time for the development of emerging cat control technologies.
The Committee welcomes community and philanthropic interest in the further development of predator-free fences including the use of innovative financial arrangements such as social bonds.
It is the Committee’s view that the Australian Government should consider a dedicated program, perhaps entitled Project Noah, to achieve an expansion of Australia’s network of predator-free exclosures and feral-cat free islands, with a clear focus on the conservation of critically endangered species, including by developing partnerships with communities, the private sector and philanthropic groups.
Trap, Neuter, Release
Some inquiry submitters asked the Committee to consider the trap, neuter release (TNR) technique as a way of managing feral cats. While the Committee acknowledges that the use of this technique has been successful overseas, it is clear that the evidence does not support a similar conclusion for Australia. In particular, the Committee notes that proponents of TNR fail to consider the ongoing impacts to native wildlife when cats are released after having been desexed. Given the significant impact of feral cats on native wildlife, the Committee does not support TNR as a credible technique in Australia. The Committee believes that the Australian Government, working with states and territories, should seek to limit the use of the TNR control method to situations where impacts on Australian native wildlife are negligible.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government develop a clear strategy to inform its resourcing of and response to the problem of feral cats, including through a ‘reset’ of its current policy and planning. This should comprise:
a. A new iteration of the Threat Abatement Plan for predation by feral cats addressing:
i. how it is to be evaluated, implemented, and resourced; and
ii. a requirement that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to develop complementary and localised plans.
b. A revised Threatened Species Strategy comprising:
i. relevant targets focused on the rehabilitation of threatened species and ecological communities, accompanied by details of how each target will be achieved, resourced and reported; and
ii. restatement of the need to cull feral cats, with new targets for culling consistent with contemporaneous prevalence data.
c. Appropriate consideration of reform opportunities identified through the current review of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and its administration, including but not limited to:
i. the extent to which recovery plans are created and their actions resourced [see paragraph 3.18].
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government spearhead, in partnership with the states and territories, an expansion of Australia’s network of predator-free safe-haven enclosures and feral cat-free islands through a new program, Project Noah, as a new national conservation mission.
The expansion of feral-free areas should be opportunistic in terms of land and island availability, but also specifically identify and reference species that can be saved through Project Noah, as part of the Conservation Advices, Recovery Plans and Key Threatening Processes. Governments should work to create feral-free areas across a range of ecosystems and be ambitious in their scale.
Wherever possible, Project Noah projects should be developed in partnership with communities, the private sector and philanthropic groups, based on proven models such as those that have been developed with organisations like the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
The Committee notes with interest that DAWE is currently reviewing its ‘hybrid list’ which may result in legacy provisions relating to the import of Bengal cats being removed. The Committee would support the removal of any current legacy exemptions for Bengal cats or any other hybrid species.
Public awareness and education
The Committee acknowledges that pet cats enrich the lives of many Australians and are loved members of families and households. At the same time, the Committee shares the range of community concerns raised during the inquiry in relation to the role of domestic cats and their owners, including limited public awareness of the feral and domestic cat problem, and the barriers to ensuring that all Australians are responsible cat owners.
The Committee notes the views of many submitters to the inquiry that the welfare of all cats is important. The Committee agrees, but also emphasises that cats bear significant responsibility for damage to native wildlife and ecological communities. There is no doubt that domestic cats are part of this problem.
Evidence to the Committee suggests that some cat owners and others in the community may be either dismissive or apathetic about the impact of cats on wildlife, the interactions between domestic and feral cats, and the concerns of neighbours about the behaviour of local domestic cats. The Committee believes that more needs to be, and can be, done to ensure effective domestic cat management and responsible cat ownership.
In the Committee’s view, the Australian Government, working with states and territories, can and should do more to significantly increase public awareness and education about the impact of cats, including the interaction between domestic and feral cat populations.
The Committee suggests that the Australian Government should work with the states and territories to develop an awareness campaign relating to the impacts of cats and the obligations and responsibilities of cat owners. Such a campaign could be led by veterinarians (for example through the Australian Veterinarians Association) and animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA.
Domestic cat management
Promoting best-practice domestic cat regulation and responsible ownership, and dealing with semi-owned and stray cats in populated areas, is a multifaceted challenge. It includes but is not limited to building education and awareness.
The Best Practice Domestic Cat Management approach developed by RSPCA Australia, with the support of the Australian Government, would seem to be one well developed model that could be considered as part of this process.
The Committee acknowledges that other good practice models may also exist and encourages extensive consultation to agree on the best solutions.
Barriers to responsible cat ownership
The Committee is concerned that despite the work that has been done by local governments, the RSPCA and others, many submitters express concerns about the barriers to responsible cat ownership including with respect to registration, desexing and microchipping of domestic cats. The Committee also considers that work needs to be done to implement an easy to understand and systematic program of night time cat curfews.
The Committee would like to see consistent strategies leading to responsible cat ownership implemented across the nation. The Committee does acknowledge that many local governments have implemented their own strategies based on higher level state cat management plans.
Some have gone further, recognising that, despite cat management plans, the path to responsible cat ownership may still be unattainable for some in the community. Strategies such as the free desexing program run by Banyule City Council, and other programs providing subsidies or vouchers through community groups and local veterinarians, have clearly been of assistance. The Committee applauds these initiatives and believes that their successes can be built upon through expanding the development and trial of such programs.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in partnership with the states and territories, develop a clear strategy for the management of stray and domestic cats. The strategy should feature the following measures:
a. Develop and disseminate best practice domestic and stray cat management strategies, including increasing public awareness of the impact of cats on Australia’s native wildlife and habitats.
b. Develop a positive national cat ownership education campaign to be delivered through the Australian Veterinary Association, local councils and community groups.
c. Reduce the barriers to responsible domestic cat ownership with programs to support desexing, registration, and microchipping for domestic cats, as well as night curfew and containment programs.
d. Require all local governments to actively consider whether night-time curfews should be put in place for all or part of their areas of responsibility.
e. Design and implement a pilot program for subsidised or free desexing of pet cats in areas of high need, redeemable through vouchers issued by veterinarians or local governments in targeted locations.
Governance to support effective strategy
The Committee considers that improvements could be made to the mechanisms and processes governing Commonwealth activity and inter-governmental cooperation on cats. These would enhance the Australian Government’s ability to develop and implement the recast strategies and new programs recommended in Recommendations 3, 4 and 5 above.
National Feral Cat Taskforce
In the Committee’s view, the Australian Government should consider expanding the membership and role of the National Feral Cat Taskforce. The Australian Government should consider the need for adequate representation on the Taskforce to provide views and advice on matters concerning agricultural and veterinary issues and the ethical treatment of animals.
The Committee believes that there is also scope to consider expanding the role of the Taskforce to include an improved national coordination role. In particular, it is the Committee’s view that the Taskforce should undertake an analysis of the effectiveness of the laws in place in each state and territory and how these could be better harmonised.
Emphasising that the issue of feral cats is a significant threat to Australia’s biodiversity, species and habitats, the Committee would like to see the Taskforce make objective recommendations to the Australian Government about the allocation of funding or resources to the most effective projects to reduce the threat of predation.
2015 National Declaration: feral cats as pests
The Committee notes that several state and territory jurisdictions have yet to invoke the 2015 National Declaration: feral cats as pests. While the Committee understands that the remaining jurisdictions may have localised concerns, it is imperative that the Australian Government seek to engage them and help to develop solutions that will lead to the agreement of all domestic jurisdictions. The Australian Government should keep the Committee apprised of progress.
Supporting local governments
The Committee’s inquiry has identified the problem of varied legislative and regulatory approaches to managing issues relating to feral and domestic cats across Australia. As recommended above, the Committee believes that work should begin through an expanded Feral Cat Taskforce to harmonise feral cat laws and cat management plans.
In addition, evidence to the inquiry made it clear that local governments across the nation undertake a significant role in the management of domestic cats, but are often poorly resourced and not supported with clear plans for how processes and outcomes could be improved. The Committee acknowledges the work of local communities and the challenges they face as a result of the varied legislative, regulatory and practice approaches across Australia.
In the Committee’s view, there is a significant opportunity for the Australian Government to assume strong leadership in driving change in this respect. As a first step, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with state and territory governments to develop principles and consistent guidance for the regulation of domestic cats and localised cat management plans (which should include unambiguous powers relating to the registration, desexing and microchipping of, and the enactment of curfews for, domestic cats). Such guidance should also include an easily accessible national resource for best practice and effective cat management strategies, along with clear guidance on the roles and responsibilities of each tier of government. In return, states and territories should ensure that all local governments have developed and implemented domestic cat management plans consistent with relevant state and territory laws.
Given the scale of the feral cat problem and their distribution around Australia, the Committee is of the view that the Australian Government should seek to work with a variety of stakeholders including Commonwealth, state and territory government agencies and the nation’s scientists, to evaluate existing and emerging methodologies and develop advice on the most effective feral cat control techniques that could be deployed on a broad scale. In seeking this advice, the Australian Government should have regard to matters including unintended impacts on native wildlife, landscapes or human health, regulatory approvals, and the costs of procurement and deployment.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government develop a governance framework to give effect to the new strategies and programs outlined in recommendations 3, 4 and 5. This should include governance measures that:
a. Expand the membership of the National Feral Cat Taskforce to include experts on agricultural and veterinary issues, including the ethical treatment of animals, and any other matters deemed relevant.
b. Strengthen the remit of the National Feral Cat Taskforce to enable it to lead a process to harmonise existing feral cat legislation and regulation across Australia. In particular, a strengthened Taskforce should:
i. review the effectiveness and consistency of current state and territory feral cat legislation, regulation and management plans;
ii. develop principles for the harmonisation of existing state and territory feral cat-related legislative and regulatory instruments to the best-practice standard; and
iii. develop principles for best practice cat management plans.
c. Establish a mechanism for collaboration with state and territory Environment Ministers and relevant agencies, to improve harmonisation of legislative and regulatory approaches, and best practice principles, in relation to domestic and stray cats.
d. Remove barriers to the full implementation by all jurisdictions of the National Declaration: feral cats as pests.
e. Facilitate collaboration with relevant Commonwealth agencies, scientists and states and territories to consider the most effective feral cat control methods, and provide advice on the broad scale usage of these methods.
f. Ensure that local governments are resourced appropriately to deal with cats, including requiring all local governments to develop and implement domestic cat management plans consistent with relevant state and territory laws.
g. Develop principles for local government animal management staff to manage local cat issues, including easily accessible resources.