By JULIUS DENNIS
When Mark Russel bought a cat trap, he didn’t expect to have such quick success: Since he deployed it late last year, the Braitling resident has caught eight feral cats.
Mala face extinction from cats.
“I was surprised you could get eight in one spot over a relatively small amount of time. It does make you concerned,” he says.
Rural resident Trevor Shiell has trapped 23 cats on his property alone in the past 12 months.
In and around Alice Springs, invasive species run rampant, and Mr Russell is part of a passionate sector of the community who are trying to make a difference. He has cleared his yard and some surrounding bush of buffel grass, as well as joined the fight against the turtle-dove pigeon, but if there is one thing that has truly made a difference in how much wildlife he sees in his yard, it’s catching cats.
“If you like wildlife, it’s noticeable, the amount of birds and stuff that come … there’s more birds than usual.”
He says it’s a pretty simple proposition: “If you want to conserve native wildlife, catch cats.”
Animals like the mala and burrowing bettong are at the point where their populations essentially cannot exist with the presence of cats in the environment.
Also under threat are the lives of more commonly seen wildlife like skinks, and birdlife like the Australian ringneck parrot.
Cats are killers at heart, taking the lives of an estimated 1.7 billion native animals across the country annually.
Cats who live in the arid interior, away from regular sources of water, have adapted so that they get all the fluids they need from their prey, going months without drinking water.
What’s left of a cat’s dinner. Photo MIKE GILLAM.
In research published recently examining why the Western-central Arid Zone ecosystem is in a state of collapse, cats and other invasive predators were named on the list of factors. The local wing of Land for Wildlife says that there are 12 animals in Central Australia that are at risk of extinction by cats.
Further, cats which are not kept indoors and are allowed to roam, or are feral, can be a risk to human health. Professor Sarah Legge, of the University of Queensland, says cats may carry the parasite Toxoplasma gondii.
When entering the human body it “can cause miscarriages, birth defect in babies, and is linked to long-term mental health issues like depression and schizophrenia.
“Cats infected with Toxoplasma gondii shed millions of the tiny parasites into the environment where they can be eaten by other animals.
“We would expect rates of Toxoplasma gondii infection to be low in Central Australia as the hot and dry conditions make it hard for the parasite to survive for extended periods in the environment.
“However, around towns like Alice Springs with high cat densities and cooler microclimates toxoplasma gondii is likely to occur in some free-roaming cats.”
Who is responsible for what in the control of cats in the Northern Territory is a bit of a mess, and once you get out of town, the answer seems to be whoever will try.
Senior Director Species Management for the Department of Environment, Parks and Water Security, Glenn Edwards, says: “Councils have a responsibility to manage pets which they do using by-laws. Away from urban areas, individual land owners and managers are responsible for managing feral animals. However, they are not obliged to manage the impacts of feral cats.”
Trevor Shiell with a cat trap.
Land for Wildlife has traps available to buy in Alice Springs and they also loan them out to members. As well, 42 traps are available to be loaned out by the Alice Springs Town Council, 16 of which are currently on loan and being used.
Previously Land for Wildlife had been conducting a range of studies on the activities of domestic and feral cats, but had to cease these activities when their funding, most of which came from the Territory government, ran out in 2019. Since then, coordinator Kate Stevens says there has been an “ongoing difficulty of finding funding”.
Bill Low, who houses the Land for Wildlife operation in the home office of his ecology business and has watched the cat populations of Central Australia ebb and flow, says “there is a cone of population.
“The peak of the cone is in town here, and as you go out away from town, then it disperses out.”
Aside from the native animals, in many ways Tammy Hargrave, the manager of the Alice Springs Animal Shelter, bears the brunt of being at the peak of the cone. For cats who enter the shelter, the only such facility for 1500 kilometres, Ms Hargrave is the giver and taker of life.
For those who have given up on caring for their cat, let it roam and become feral, before ending up in a trap, lured by the smell of canned fish, this responsibility lies heavily on Ms Hargrave’s shoulders.
“You know, we don’t get out of bed excited to have a euthanasia day, it’s horrendous, like we push it out sometimes as long as we can because we just don’t want to deal [with it],” she says.
Tammy Hargrave: Life and death decisions.
“I’d love to not euthanise, but I have to wear that hat because if it’s not me it’s gonna be someone else.”
In the winter, when the kitten season slows, Ms Hargrave says that she has a better chance of finding homes for cats, but in the summer, it’s different entirely.
“You can’t keep up, there’s days where we might euthanise six cats and then a litter of mum and eight kittens will come in. So you’re just never ever really in front. Ever.”
Is this animal adoptable? Is it more adoptable than the litter of kittens that another cat in the shelter is about to birth? Do we have time, space and money to care for it if after a few months we will eventually put it down? These are the types of questions that Ms Hargrave must weigh.
Speaking of one cat currently at the shelter, a young, spry animal with soft black hide, big green eyes and an even bigger belly, Ms Hargrave says she hopes she has only three kittens: “We can deal with three. If she has four or five, two will have to go.”
Ms Hargrave thinks it is easy for people to comment on “kill shelters” and take the moral high ground, but there is no other alternative: “It’s cruel, a cage is not a life long term,” she says.
The Alice Springs shelter sees between 400 and 500 cats come through its doors annually, with an adoption rate of around 40%. This might sound pretty abysmal, to be putting down hundreds of cats yearly, but when compared to adoption rates in capital cities, 40% starts to sound a lot better.
That cat with the swollen belly ended up having five kittens: Ms Hargrave says all are being kept for now.
“The problem is before us,” says Ms Hargrave. Cats not neutered roaming the streets, feral or domestic, will breed as instinctually as they kill. When a cat is adopted from the animal shelter, it comes desexed, but cats from other sources may not be, and in town and the surrounding town camps, cat populations can easily swell.
Backpack: Where cats should be in the out-of-doors.
Around Australia in urban areas, the issue of feral and unowned cats has often been left in the hands of the passionate few.
This system relies so heavily on individuals to bait and catch an extremely elastic cat population. Additionally, there is the assumption that cat owners will do the right thing, a concept that can seem far fetched and hopeful. However, there are people doing the right thing.
Ian Coleman and Kylie Logan, along with their daughter Poppy, keep their cat Wendy on a tight leash — literally.
Whenever Wendy is outside, she’s on a leash or in her backpack, which the family often uses for taking her on bike rides. In the yard, Wendy is free to roam the radius of her lead and whatever it is tied to.
“She doesn’t know any different,” says Ms Logan of Wendy’s indoor life.
Research shows that cats live longer, happier lives inside and that cats who have once been outdoor animals can adapt to indoor life provided they are kept entertained.
While these facts can be quite easily accessed online, it seems this is not always translating to a change in cat owner behaviour. Ms Logan often sees cats from around the neighbourhood, cats whose owners are generally thoughtful and informed people.
“I don’t know if they just don’t know better,” says Ms Logan, a little exasperated.
Trevor Shiell once trapped a feral cat on his block in Connellan that was nearly a meter “from the tip of its nose to the tip of its tail.”
He hopes to see someone look into how cat pheromones – attracting sexual partners –could be used to draw cats to a location and skip the laborious step of setting traps, but he doesn’t hold out much hope.
“I don’t think people look at it from a scientific point of view.”
They do in remote and sanctuary settings, but trapping cats near human populations is obviously not effective. Education on the damage caused by cats – every cat that is let outside – struggles to get through.
Trevor says that the problems cats cause, not only in Central Australia, but all over the nation “won’t get solved unless the Federal government comes up with a scientifically practical point of view.
“Unless there is a commercial imperative or a voting imperative, it’s not going to happen.”
There have been statements of intent from the Federal government. In 2015 it promised to cull two million cats nationwide by 2020. Media attention that followed included a lengthy piece in the New York Times.
Despite the attention grabbing number floated, which in itself is hard to track, it appears the government never quite achieved their goal, and is instead running it back.
In early February this year an inquiry by the Federal Government found its approach needs to be torn up. A raft of recommendations were put forward, a majority of which could have resulted simply from a quick google search.
Mark Russell with a turtle-dove pigeon cage next to a cat trap.
One is establishing more fenced feral free sanctuaries around the country through a scheme they’ve called Project Noah. Currently, Australia Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is the main operator of such sanctuaries, with 28 properties nationwide, however few are fenced due to size and rough terrain.
The AWC sanctuary at Newhaven, 350 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, is proof that it can be done in an arid environment.
The sanctuary is home to 29 species of mammals, 175 species of birds and 84 species of reptile, as well as six species of amphibians. Josef Schofield, a regional operations manager for AWC who previously ran the operation at Newhaven, says fencing comes at a high cost and Federal funding for such projects could make a huge difference.
“It costs anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000 per kilometre,” Mr Schofield says.
Most of the money in the AWC purse comes from philanthropists and donations, but if the government were to fund the construction and some ongoing costs of fenced sanctuaries, a lot more could be done.
Right now, the Newhaven cat and fox free zone is 10,000 hectares, which equates to 44 kilometres of fencing and earned the title of the second longest cat-proof fence in the world.
“We’re talking about scaling that up to potentially 100,000 hectares over the next five years or so.”
For that to be achieved, Mr Schofield says: “You’re looking at nearly 150 kilometres of fence. So straightaway, if you go on the upper end of that figure, 150 times 50,000, is $7.5m — just for the fence. And then you’ve got the ongoing management.”
And that’s just for one sanctuary, one that’s already partially fenced.
On the leash.
Some of the money for the construction of the Newhaven fence came from the Federal government, so there is a precedent.
Like every complex problem, fenced sanctuaries cannot be the only answer.
Recently, aerial drops of cat specific bait have been carried out throughout the West MacDonnell National Park (Tjoritja) by the NT and Federal governments to aid the survival of the Central Rock Rat, but it is too early to know any results.
Around Alice Springs, Mr Low and Mr Shiell agree that an opportunity to get on top of the numbers was probably lost when the cat population seemed to be coming into town during the drought. Now that the rain has come, “they’ve likely scattered,” says Mr Shiell.
Whatever the case, the passionate minority will no doubt continue baiting their traps and hope that help is on the way.
Last updated 5 March 2021, 4.38pm.