Canberrans will soon be compelled to significantly shift their relationships with cats. Newly acquired cats will no longer be allowed to prowl the suburbs, with containment requirements to be introduced for the entire ACT.
The impact cats have on native wildlife is well documented, and the citizens of a city intertwined with bushland have a duty to protect and care for the natural environment, Canberra's shared backyard.
Cats, which play a very important role in the lives of those who keep them, can co-exist with Canberra's rich ecosystem. Most cat owners understand the risks in allowing their pets to roam, particularly at night. The risk to both cats and other wildlife is seriously reduced if they are kept contained.
The ACT government's 10-year cat plan, released on Friday, does go some way to acknowledge the enormity of the change. Cats owned before July 1, 2022 will not have to be contained, provided they do not live in suburbs already declared as cat containment areas.
This grandfathered approach acknowledges the stress to both cats and their owners that sudden cat containment would bring. The staged introduction also acknowledges it would be unfair to change the rules for cat owners overnight. The plan will also require all cats in the territory to be registered, with a one-off fee for new cats. It's another layer of requirement for owners that the government will need to build support for.
It will be by no means easy to recast the relationship between Canberrans and their cats. That work will not be finished by mid-next year. Careful consideration will be needed, for example, on how best to manage households which may have an older, free-roaming cat and a new and contained member of the household.
Fines risk being unnecessarily punitive, so it is a positive sign the ACT government says it will work to educate in the first instance, rather than punish, to achieve compliance.
For citywide cat containment to be effective, the ACT government will need to genuinely engage with owners and ensure they understand the reasons behind the impost of the new restrictions.
In the decades to come, cat containment will be seen as just another component of cat ownership in the ACT. But in the meantime, it would be better to bring people along with the approach rather than penalising them. Ultimately, good pet ownership is about taking responsibility for the welfare of animals, both domestic and wild.
Ensuring pet owners are responsible, caring and attune to the needs of their animals the environment they share is a far better way to manage the needs of the bush capital than a harsh crackdown.
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