Our Bushland Diary

Sunday, July 24, 2011

cats in Western Australia - where do we stand?

Debates about cats, the effects of cats on wildlife and the environment, and the rights of cat owners, have been on-going for many years.  There has been a lot of discussion in the media lately, regarding cat laws in Western Australia. 

The most recent discussion started late last year, when the City of Swan selected three public parks in Ellenbrook for a trial Cat-free Zone. The parks were Woodlake Park (in Woodlake), Mornington Park (in Coolamon) and Moulton Wetland Park (in Charlotte's Vineyard).  A survey conducted by City of Swan in the three areas found that more than three-quarters of local residents gave their support for the zoning.  You can read about the survey responses in this November 2010 article in The Advocate newspaper.  A further article in December 2010 in The Advocate talked about the use of warning signs, and the impounding of cats found wandering around in these parks.  

In June 2011,  Western Australia brought in state-wide Cat Laws, encouraging responsible pet ownership, You can download the new Cat Bill from this link.  The City of Swan put out a statement in June 2011 in The Advocate, outlining how the new Cat Bill makes it unnecessary for local councils to have Cat-free Zones.  They are therefore abandoning the three proposed Cat-free Zones in Ellenbrook.  However, the Cat Bill allows authorised persons to impound cats found in a public place, which includes parks, so it effectively gives the City of Swan the same level of control over cats in parks. 

In July 2011, the ABC picked up the story and conducted some interviews with people from various backgrounds.  Although I don't agree with some of their viewpoints, the article makes an interesting read.

You might be thinking, why am I so interested in all this?  

Well, as a passionate bushwalker and wildlife photographer, I often see cats in places where they shouldn't be.  

someone's pet in a bushland park in Ellenbrook

The problem isn't just in Ellenbrook, of course.  I have seen cats wandering around in bushland and parks all over Perth, and even further afield. 

Question: What's wrong with this picture of Burns Beach Nature Reserve?
Answer:  It contains a cat.
Most of these are obviously household moggies - well-fed, often with collars, and not really caring if I take their picture, so long as I don't get too close.  It wouldn't be so bad if this was all cats do, just sit around under bushes or on logs enjoying the view.  But even a cat owner should admit that cats aren't in the park just for the fresh air.  

A common misconception is that cats only hunt when they are hungry, and that well-fed cats don't kill birds, therefore pet cats don't do any damage in bushland.  This is just not true.  Cats hunt because they are cats, and hunting is what they do, hungry or not.  Another misconception is that cats hunt only at night.  Not true; if it was, cats would not hunt birds during the day (which they do).  A third urban myth is that belling a cat warns birds and other animals of the cat's presence.  Not true; the only bird that would associate the sound of the bell with a warning of impending danger would be the bird in the cat's mouth.  Too late for that bird.  But I digress....

I often find tracks of cats, both feral and domestic, in bushland, sometimes many kilometres from the nearest houses.  Lately I've made a habit of recording these, because they seem to be on the increase.
domestic cat tracks in moist sand, very easy to see

cat tracks in a Bush Forever site, a LONG way from the houses  
(dry sand makes the track indistinct and difficult to see)

I also see first-hand how irresponsible pet ownership impacts on bushland and its wildlife.  Sometimes the victims are not in bushland, they're in my garden.  It's not pretty, finding a patch of feathers or a piece of a deceased skink, or worse.   

I was going to put a gruesome photo of the remains of a bird killed by a cat in here, but I decided against it. Instead, here's a photo of a very-much-alive skink on a burnt-out tree stump.

Cats are famous for being very efficient predators of rats and mice, which endears them to the human race for their ability to keep vermin at manageable levels around our buildings and farms.  Amazingly, cats can kill animals up to the size of a rabbit.  But this ability also makes them quite good at killing a range of other animals as well, such as frogs, lizards, small snakes, pygopods (legless lizards), and of course, birds.

Unfortunately, much of our native wildlife is at risk, because it is in the same "size and weight range" as a rat or mouse.  In Ellenbrook, we have many marsupials, and small birds that like to feed and nest on or near the ground.  We have a large number of little frogs and lizards that live in leaf litter or burrows at ground level.  These are all susceptible to cat attack.

Here is a list of some of the animals in our local parks, at risk from cats:

Mammals (these are in our Bush Forever sites)

Quenda (Southern Brown Bandicoot)

Honey Possum

Brush-tailed Possum
Ash-grey Mouse (a native, not a pest)

Southern Bush-rat (a native, not a pest)

Water Rat (a native, not a pest)
White-striped Freetail Bat

Birds (in bushland, and some of these are in suburban gardens)

Painted Button-quail 

Red-capped Parrot

Crested Pigeon 

Common Bronzewing

Splendid Fairy-wren
Yellow-rumped Thornbill

Grey Fantail

Brown Honeyeater

White-cheeked Honeyeater

New Holland Honeyeater

Western Spinebill 

Reptiles (in bushland and suburban gardens)

Spiny-tailed Gecko

Burton's Legless Lizard
Fraser's Legless Lizard
Keeled Legless Lizard
Western Bluetongue

Fence Skink
Common Dwarf Skink
Western Pale-flecked Morethia (a skink)
Southern Pale-flecked Morethia (a skink)
West Coast Ctenotus (a skink)
West Coast Four-toed Lerista (another skink)
Western Bearded Dragon
Western Heath Dragon
Black-striped Snake (a small inoffensive creature)

Frogs (in bushland and, if you're lucky, in your garden)

Motorbike Frog
Banjo Frog (Pobblebonk)
Slender Tree Frog
Red-thighed Froglet
Moaning Frog
Squelching Froglet
Glauert's Froglet

Sadly, even if an animal survives the initial attack by a cat, it's very likely to succumb to post-attack shock or fatal infection from the wounds inflicted.  Cats carry a parasite called Toxoplasma gondii, which doesn't affect the cat itself, but can cause a disease called toxoplasmosis in other animals, as well as in people.  The effects of toxoplasmosis can be fatal.  The Australian Wildlife Health Network has an excellent factsheet which lists the effects that toxoplasmosis has on Australian wildlife. 

After all I've said, I still appreciate that cats are beautiful animals, and they make great pets.  Due to their intelligence and adaptability, they are undoubtedly one of the stars of the animal world.  But they don't belong in the Australian bushland, and they certainly don't have the "right" to go around killing our wildlife.  

If you have a cat, please follow the responsible pet ownership guidelines, and keep your pet on your property.  Don't let it loose to stray across roads, into other people's yards, and into parks, where it can get into trouble. 

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