Earlier this month was Threatened Species Day, a day that marks the death of the last Tasmanian tiger in 1936, and an opportunity to reflect what we can do to cease the rate of extinction in Australia. While biodiversity can sometimes seem like something that's "over there" and not impacting our day to day lives, the reality is that our existence depends on the complex web of other living creatures and plants - their wellbeing is something we should never take for granted.
Canberrans are lucky to live so close to nature. During the COVID-19 lockdown, even more of us came to value our urban green spaces and nature reserves that are within easy reach.
However, living in the "bush capital" comes with challenges to protect the native species around us. The interface between our urban existence and the nature that threads through our city needs thoughtful management to ensure human activities aren't detrimental to wildlife, and the habitats it depends on.
One of those human endeavours that has a significant impact on native animals is the ownership of pet cats, in particular cats that are allowed to roam from their homes.
With approximately 75 per cent of Canberra's suburbs located within one kilometre of threatened fauna habitat, cats that are allowed to roam pose a significant threat. Research has show domestic cats leave their homes to hunt both day and night, and can travel up to 900 metres into nature reserves. Canberra's owned, free-roaming cats alone are estimated to prey on approximately 61,000 native birds, 2000 native mammals, 30,000 native reptiles and 6000 native frogs every year.
The ACT government has long been aware of this problem and has progressively mandated 24-hour cat containment in new suburbs in Gungahlin and Molonglo as residents moved in. Over the past four years, this has also extended to suburbs in West Belconnen.
However, given the ongoing carnage of native mammals, birds and reptiles, it's disappointing the government hasn't moved more quickly to implement measures right across our suburbs.
Community attitudes have shifted in favour of keeping cats at home as understanding of the impact cats can have on other species has grown. While some lament that cats are designed to roam and hunt, and that it is cruel to keep them contained, the RSPCA has come out in clear support of cat owners being responsible pet owners and restricting cats to their properties. The evidence indicates that well-cared-for, stimulated and entertained animals kept at home trigger less visits to the vet as a result of fights, and live longer lives.
In 2019, the government released the ACT Draft Cat Plan, which discussed the management of the ACT's different cat populations (owned, semi-owned, strays and ferals), including issues of desexing and registration. On the issue of cat containment, the paper outlined three different options:
- phasing in across identified suburbs, starting with those closer to nature reserves,
- ensuring all new cats are contained, or
- setting a date in the future by which all of Canberra has 24-hour cat containment.
All of these options have pros and cons, but ultimately they need to lead to one clear outcome: that pet cats are no longer allowed to freely roam across our suburbs and into our nature reserves, killing wildlife.
The Conservation Council ACT Region is calling for Canberra-wide cat containment by 2025. The clock is ticking on this issue, and in the lead-up to the ACT election, we will be asking political parties and candidates when and how they will stop the ongoing destruction of our wildlife.
- Helen Oakey is executive director of the Conservation Council ACT Region.