Life is different for some Canberra cats.
In September 2003, the Conservation Council ACT publicly released a policy proposal on options for the ACT for managing the impacts of domestic cats on native wildlife in nature reserves. One outcome was the first declaration of cat curfew areas in 2005 - the new suburbs of Forde and Bonner in Gungahlin. Fortuitously, this happened well before land sales commenced, so all new residents were aware of the requirements. According to local developers it actually became a positive sales point.
Fast forward to just a week ago, when new laws were applied from July 1 regarding domestic cat management in Canberra. These laws are very welcome as a key part of looking after the ACT's unique but diminishing wildlife.
In short, the law now is that if you obtain a cat born after July 1, 2022 it has to be registered and kept contained within your property, although leash walking fits the contained definition. Containment requirements continue to apply to all cats in the previously declared 17 cat containment suburbs.
The legislation also requires that if you already have a cat, it has to be registered, and in 2022-2023 registration is free. There is no legal requirement to keep existing cats contained, this is known as the 'grandfathering' clause. We are now on a slow path to phase out roaming cats, with old existing cats able to roam and new cats having to be contained.
The enactment of these legislative changes, steered by City Services Minister Chris Steel, is very welcome in that it ends a long period of piecemeal policy-making about domestic cat management, flawed implementation of policies and the lack of a consistent approach. Now there is a clear policy and a ten-year cat plan.
However, this approach has some challenges.
And it is somewhat different from options put forward by the Conservation Council in 2014-2015. These were well-informed by the 2014 Eyles / Mulvaney paper: "Responsible pet ownership and the protection of wildlife: Options for improving the management of cats in the ACT", which looked at the various policy options to address cat management.
Frustrated at the lack of enforcement and inconsistent application of the extant government policy of 'declaring new suburbs' next to nature reserves as cat containment areas, the Conservation Council revisited the issue in some depth and then decided to advocate for a forward declaration of all cats being contained by 2025, giving ten years' notice. This proposal was based on a cat's average life expectancy of about ten years and a suitable period for people to prepare.
The campaign slogan was "love your cat and wildlife too". At that time the RSPCA had recently adopted a policy in support of 24-hour cat containment on animal welfare grounds.
The Conservation Council launched a significant community engagement initiative using various media and organised workshops on cat enclosures. The response was significant and overwhelmingly supportive.
But then there was a seven-year gap. There were promises that the matter would be dealt with soon via the Animal Welfare Strategy, this changed to a cat plan which meant further unnecessary delays. It was only in May 2021 that this cat plan was finally released, and a year later its key legislative measures finally came into effect.
So are we at the end of the road? The idea that we may still have roaming cats for another ten or more years is disconcerting from a wildlife perspective, although over time the number of roaming cats will decline.
There will be clear challenges in enforcement, which has consistently been flagged as a major issue. How will the residents at number 10 feel about having to keep their cat Boris contained whereas their neighbour at number 11 is allowed to have a roaming cat? And how can an enforcement ranger recognise 'an old cat' allowed to roam as against 'a new cat' that must be contained?
One way of overcoming this would be a significant, well-resourced community engagement campaign focused on all existing cat owners to encourage cats being contained. This could include assistance to those unable to afford or build suitable containment enclosures. An enforcement strategy should complement this.
Another challenge is the gaps. Way back in 2015-16 two of the newer suburbs, Casey and Kingston Foreshore, both next to or very near significant nature reserves, were identified as important areas for cat containment; community consultations took place, draft declarations were prepared and then put on hold. It is unclear why these suburbs have fallen through the cracks and not been declared as cat containment areas.
So, the next step on this road, to take us to where we need to be protecting wildlife and the welfare of domestic cats, is for the ACT government to step up on these issues as a matter of priority.
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