Conditional support for containment
The TCT supports the state government’s proposal to legislate to make containment of pet cats compulsory, but our support is conditional.
The government must phase-in compulsory measures, over several years at least, and fund effective education programs during this time to ensure that every cat owner is informed of their responsibilities and has time to put in place effective containment measures.
The government must seek to understand the needs and concerns of cat owners and to provide practical support and advice to help people to put in place effective containment measures. Government assistance is most important for those on a low income, where it should contribute to the cost of materials and construction, and where cat owners face barriers such as councils and land lords making it difficult to build an enclosure.
The TCT’s survey on cat confinement found very high levels of support from cat owners and non owners for government assistance.
Equally important is to fund an education program to advise cat owners on how to help their cats adapt to containment. A contained cat must have its basic needs satisfied and have sufficient enrichment activities. Some contained cats exhibit behavioural problems but we are reassured by veterinarians that these can be addressed. The government needs to lead by assuring cat-owners that there are solutions and identifying where help can be found.
The penalties for allowing a pet cat to stray must be proportionate and fair. In particular, there must be a legal guarantee that a pet cat will not be euthanised after straying once where it can be shown straying was an unavoidable accident, such as a tree falling on the enclosure or another person releasing the cat. The Dog Management Act has a similar safeguard against euthanasia of dogs that bite people after being provoked.
Powers to enforce cat containment laws should be optional for the councils to adopt depending on the level of community concern and the impact on priority wildlife. This is the same as with existing measures in the Cat Management Act that allows councils to choose whether to declare cat prohibited areas or appoint cat control officers, or not.
There is still some debate about how far from a house it is fair to allow a cat to be contained. However, if a cat owner lived on a bush block, even a small one, allowing the cat to roam that entire property is somewhat absurd. Even if it were possible to ensure the cat stayed within the property boundaries, it would still be able it to kill all manner of wildlife.
If a backyard includes bushland there needs to be a limit on the size of the cat’s enclosure, to minimise the potential for cats to have access to native species. Having said this, there are no containment systems we are aware of which completely eliminate access to native animals, but done properly access will be significantly reduced.
Reasons for containing cats
There are many reasons to contain cats. Straying cats can be a nuisance. They leave faeces and hunt wildlife in the gardens of neighbours. Some people just don’t like cats.
As some letter writers have said, all people have an obligation to keep their pets in their own yard.
Cats prey on a wide variety of native animals and this is not limited to those living near to a reserve. Many backyards have remnants of bush or native gardens established to attract wildlife. Cats are very effective hunters and can kill birds, small mammals, lizards and frogs. Ground nesting birds are most vulnerable e.g. penguins, hooded plovers etc, but other species that nest or feed in low bushes such as robins and honey eaters are also very much at risk.
Many cat owners have stories to tell of their cat being killed or injured by cars and coming home with injuries or contracting diseases after fighting with other cats or dogs. If these cats survive they may require expensive veterinary treatment. Confinement may save your cat’s life, save you a lot of money and stop you worrying about where your cat is.
Recently we have heard of cats being attacked by snakes, and Reptile Rescue recommends all cats be kept indoors during summer.
It is easy to speculate that cat-owner’s who oppose cat containment may have just been lucky to have not lost a cat.
Another group of people who have an interest in cat containment are those who are participating in feral cat control programs or may do so in the future. If community groups can responsibly run cat trapping programs then they should not have to deal with pet cats turning up in traps. Confinement of pet cats is an important prerequisite for a feral program to commence.
Some people have suggested that the vast majority of cat owners will contain their cat of their own accord, and that compulsory containment is unnecessary. However, even if this were true, wildlife managers need the power to compel people to contain cats where there is potential for high level of harm to wildlife.
Response to concerned cat owners
Most cat owners who have written letters complaining about cat confinement have legitimate concerns that can be addressed.
With the government’s help, practical issues such as the cost of containment and dwellings being unsuitable for containment can be addressed. Complaints that there will be a flood of cats being dumped are probably exaggerated and can be avoided if government provides some assistance. The same was said when the Cat Management Act was introduced and yet no flood of cats occurred.
Some letters have said that containing pet cats will not reduce the number of cats, because ferals will still be out there and breeding. This ignores the risk to pet cats from straying and the nuisance they cause neighbours. It also ignores the risk that your cat can currently be legally shot if it strays onto sheep and cattle farms and may get caught in traps laid by community groups.
But the argument that is most frustrating, as there seems to be no evidence to support it, is the claim that cats are ‘a free-spirit’, and that it is natural for a cat to roam and that they only hunt other introduced animals and keep them in balance. If evidence is provided to show that some cats only prey on introduced species or a veterinarian believes that confinement will be inhumane, even in large enclosures, an exemption should be granted, as is currently the case with de-sexing. But just because there are difficult cases is not a reason to give up on compulsory containment.
Peter McGlone is the Director of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust and is a member of the state government’s committee charged with responsibility to prepare a Tasmanian Cat Management Plan. Last December the TCT released the results of its survey on cat confinement that found strong support for compulsory confinement.