Updated November 28th, 2020
“Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t like cats — hate cats — and too often we see what happens to cats when they are trapped by these sorts of people.” RSPCA South Australia chief executive Paul Stevenson
“A law like this would give the worst elements of society Carte Blanche to abuse their neighbours’ pets” Brian May (guitarist in Queen)
Why are these two so worried?
New cat curfew laws proposed by Marion Council will allow the trapping of any cat found off the property from 9pm to 7am. Not just by council staff either. By anyone at all.
This might not seem like such a big deal if you don’t own a cat. After all, aren’t cats supposed to be kept in at night? And aren’t there too many cats roaming around anyway?
It might surprise you to know that I agree with both of these statements. I even support humane and evidence-based ways to address the problem. But this isn’t one of them.
Trapping Cats Doesn’t Work
There’s an old saying: nature abhors a vacuum. You create one, it gets filled. Fast.
Trapping cats is so inefficient that you can’t trap them faster than they breed. All you end up doing is increasing your kill rate without any change to the cat population. Other than possibly making them younger.
And before I go on, if you think that taking excess cats to a shelter isn’t killing them, you need to look at the statistics on successful adoptions. With so few homes available and so many cats, they’re very unlikely to succeed. Even if they do, it just means another cat misses out.
Anyone who’s monitored the trapping of cats alone knows how useless it is as a population control measure. Of course, that’s one of the many problems with Marion’s plan: there won’t be any monitoring. It will just relentlessly roll on under its own self-belief.
If Marion are really serious about reducing nuisance cats and saving wildlife, why aren’t they pushing for an evidence-based approach? One that’s more likely to deliver real results for its residents.
Because the answer is much harder to sell: trap-neuter-release.
What Is Trap Neuter Release?
Trap neuter release, or TNR, is the simple idea of catching feral cats, desexing, microchipping and marking them, and then putting them back where they came from. It works because the adult cat occupies a territory, excludes other cats from it, doesn’t breed, and (if a male) doesn’t spray. In other words, becomes like a pet cat, only outside.
Cat numbers go down, and the cats that remain are far less trouble. Less nuisance to residents, less harm to wildlife. There aren’t zero cats, but there were never going to be anyway.
The problem with TNR is that it’s a nuanced approach that’s highly vulnerable to simplistic attack. Like: “what- you’re actually letting feral cats go??” It’s also been called ‘illegal’ even though there are groups doing it successfully right here in SA right now.
TNR will only work if the people who make the decisions make them using science, not emotion. Otherwise we just keep on making the same mistakes.
The Vigilante Issue
The second problem with Marion’s plan is to make everyone into a potential cat-trapper. The cats that get trapped are more likely to be the trusting ones. Meaning that those who get into traps are more likely to be pets, not ferals.
Now you might say, “they shouldn’t be out” but anyone who has a cat knows that despite our best intentions they all get out at some time. You’ll often see the whole Spanner family out with torches hunting down Grendel, who’s invariably bolted over a fence out of reach.
Now imagine that you either don’t get on with your neighbours, or that they hate cats.
These laws will support the actions of anti-cat people. Not everyone empathises with animals. Do you think that they will always take the trapped cat for their microchip to be scanned? Even if they do, how will they treat them in the meantime? How do you even prove the cat was off the property in the first place?
You give some people an inch and they take a mile. History is littered with examples of what happens when you allow the worst elements of society to act out their prejudices. This might be considered a minor example, but it’s certainly another one.
But My Neighbour Keeps Feeding Cats
One of the ironies of this scheme is that it doesn’t even address what everyone sees as the biggest problem. That’s the local resident who leaves out food for stray cats. The problem with feeding strays is that it increases breeding rates.
If you feed a cat, you’re an owner, and Marion, like many councils, has rules limiting residents to two cats. However I don’t hear of councils going out to do anything about it. Yet, here they are turning residents into their cat police; is it just a case of cost saving?
Central to the feral cat issue is the reality that in Australia, we’re never going to have a cat-free city. All we can do is to minimise the harm to residents, the environment, and to existing cats. To do this we need to accept that not everything in life can be controlled perfectly.
Brian May’s comments also serve as a reminder of just how out of step we are compared with the rest of the world. Australia’s feral cat problem has made some of us understandably hard-nosed towards cats. But the ferals aren’t going anywhere, and this ill-considered solution will only make it worse.
Marion Council doesn’t know what it’s doing but it’s crossing a line between civil and uncivil society. And that matters to all of us, not just cat owners.
Related: Click here to read a recent Australian trap-neuter-release study. Walkerville Vet are assisting with funding this team’s latest project.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
Quotes taken from this ABC article.