Canberra’s colonies of homeless cats have been described as a “wicked problem” by a local veterinary scientist and animal welfare consultant who says the issue desperately needs more research.
Dr Bronwyn Orr says Canberra’s unique urban environment is vulnerable to a rapidly growing population of cats, which creates a predicament about how to deal with the feline predators.
“It’s what we call a ‘wicked problem’, where there’s no right or wrong answer,” Dr Orr told Region Media in response to an article in RiotACT detailing the Canberra Street Cat Alliance’s efforts to rehome or return homeless cats to their colony.
“The right decision is really informed by our judgement and our ethics rather than by a clear choice.”
The article generated an extraordinary number of passionate responses from the community that highlighted the need for informed debate on the alliance’s preference to trap, neuter and return homeless cats (known as TNR) versus socialising them for rehoming or euthanising the cats to protect wildlife.
“As a society, we have to decide what to do with the cats that aren’t suitable to be rehomed as pets,” Dr Orr said. “TNR is one of those choices, so is euthanasia sadly, but it is a question that we as a society need to answer.
“Being a scientist, if we had more data, we could make a more informed decision.”
The precise number of homeless cats is unknown but the Canberra Street Cat Alliance said there were at least 15 colonies in Canberra.
It picked up 69 cats in November, its highest since the volunteer organisation began in 2014. Street cats are taken into foster care if they are sick or need ongoing treatment once a veterinarian has checked them.
In the last financial year, 173 cats were adopted or re-homed, six died and 73 were provided with veterinary assistance before being returned to their home location, the Alliance says.
Much of the Alliance’s preference for TNR is based on research from America. However, Dr Orr said Canberra’s landscape is vastly different from densely populated areas of America where street cats live off food scraps and rodents.
She said the Canberra Street Cat Alliance did an amazing job of desexing, rehoming and caring for street cats, but that doesn’t prevent cats from being natural-born predators.
“Hunting is an inherent motivator and driver for cats,” Dr Orr said. “It’s not necessarily linked to hunger or appetite, it’s a very strong biological urge. Even a very well-fed house cat will still take the opportunity to hunt a stray lizard or bird.”
The ACT Government released a Draft ACT Cat Plan in April this year that contains eight strategies, including cat containment areas (which exist in many new suburbs). It details how feral cats impact native wildlife and explores opportunities for monitoring, research and control.
An ACT Government spokesperson said consultation on the plan showed the community supports improving cat management.
“In 2021, the Government will be working closely with key stakeholders including the RSPCA and the Canberra Street Cat Alliance to finalise the plan,” the spokesperson said.
The ACT Region Conservation Council also said the impact of roaming cats on native wildlife in the ACT is particularly concerning and has proposed that cat containment be introduced across the whole of the ACT by 2025.
“With approximately 75 per cent of Canberra’s suburbs located within 1 km of a nature reserve, the impact of cats hunting native wildlife can be devastating, with cats killing small mammals, reptiles, frogs and birds,” said its executive director Helen Oakey.
Dr Orr says science should rule cat management policy, not emotion.
“The ACT has the highest diversity of birdlife of Australia’s capital cities and a vulnerable wildlife population, so it’s important to know how cats interact with that,” she says.
“There is some research in Australia looking at whether TNR can work in urban areas but it’s really important to see how cats can co-exist with the wonderful natural wildlife we have in Canberra.”