Managing Cats In Indigenous Australian Communities
Soft paws, rumbly purrs, sandpaper tongues – what could be cuter than a kitten? However, when the average female cat has eight kittens a year, there can be too much of a good thing. Free-roaming cats can transmit diseases to humans and other animals, and as skilled hunters, they further impact local wildlife. This study reviewed cat population management practices with the goal of finding a humane way to lessen the havoc wreaked by cats living in remote indigenous communities in Australia.
The authors stress the importance of a culturally appropriate solution and describe the distinctive features of human/cat relationships among indigenous communities. For example, they observed that the dynamic here tends to be one of companionship more than ownership – part of the reason many cats roam free. In some communities, cats are named after family members who have passed away; in such cases, euthanasia would be deeply problematic.
To better understand current practices, the authors focused their review on articles published since 2015. They used eight criteria to whittle down the 987 articles retrieved from their database search, excluding articles that used mass culling, for example. After applying these criteria, 13 articles (of which 8 involved fieldwork and 5 involved computer simulations) were eligible for the review.
Fieldwork articles covered three strategies, appropriate for different cat populations: subsidized surgical sterilization, for “owned” cats; and short- and long-term TNR (trap neuter release) programs, for free-roaming cats. The computer simulations used input from various sources, including fieldwork data and expert opinion, and a range of methods. Some methods did not meet the review’s criteria and were therefore excluded: the analysis focused on methods involving TNR, surgical sterilization, and TR (trap remove, where cats are either adopted out or euthanized).
Short-term TNR programs in urban New York and rural Quebec showed little reduction in the number of cats. The four long-term studies, which lasted from 9 to 20 years, met with greater success; cat populations decreased by between 54% and 100%. Part of this difference is quite simple – since cats are released back, their numbers don’t immediately decrease; but since they are neutered, their numbers go down as they pass from old age. All four long-term studies also involved removal as well as release, adopting out the more sociable cats and euthanizing those who tested positive for leukemia and immunodeficiency virus.
No single management strategy can ethically and neatly resolve the problems associated with a high free-roaming cat population. Applying the results of their review to the Indigenous context in Australia, the authors propose a combination of three strategies that aim to stabilize the number of cats, rather than reduce it to zero. They recommend subsidized sterilization for cats with a clear guardian; trap neuter return for cats who roam freely; and trap remove for cats who are either ill (with permission of the guardian if relevant) or who may be adopted out. Choosing the appropriate strategy for a particular cat would require close engagement with community members, to avoid confusing a free-roaming “owned” cat for an “unowned” one.
For many of us who are close to and love cats, the topic of population management can be fraught. Given the sensitivity required (heightened by cultural differences), the authors highlight the importance of working with elders and other community leaders throughout the process of creating and implementing a cat population management plan. By way of initial steps, they recommend cat population counts to determine the scale of the problem, and surveying communities to find out why they have cats, to get at the root of the issue.