Half of all stray cats caught by WA councils end up dead. But that's not the worst of it.
From WA' this morning's Sunday Times; 'It is not getting any better': 50 cats a week put down in WA
Shel Williamson, of advocacy group Saving Pets, has collated cat management figures supplied by councils for the past three years.
She said $2.8 million in grants had been given to councils and organisations by the WA Government to support the introduction of the Cat Act, but in some cases there was little evidence the money had been put to that use.
Of the 5568 cats impounded by council rangers across the State, 2747 — just over 50 a week — were euthanised. That is up from 2332 in 2014-15.
Animal rescue groups in WA are complaining that local governments are not enforcing the Cat Act, introduced three years ago with the aim of reducing the number of cats being put down and encouraging more responsible cat ownership.
(President Sue Campbell) - “In our experience it is not getting any better.”
“I only know of one council that is actually following up on people that are still giving away or selling kittens or cats without de-sexing or microchipping them.
... Some Shire rangers still shot cats rather than taking them to vets for a lethal injection.
(Volunteer Tracey Marsh) “In my opinion the Cat Act has done nothing,” she said.
“I’m still hand-raising as many orphan kittens as I’ve ever done. A lot of people are still not sterilising, they’re not registering, they’re not microchipping."
“Last year we struggled so badly with the sheer numbers of cats coming in and the cost of keeping them we have now got to the point where we are going to limit the amount of cats we take. We are not saying no, we are just going to try to delay people or find other alternatives.”
... agrees stray cats are still a “significant problem” for the State. “Each year during kitten season we take in dozens of litters of unwanted kittens, some (eh?) of which are a result of unsterilised cats.” a spokesman said."
The City of Wanneroo
"said the Cat Act has not helped with the volume of strays in the City “because many cats have remained unregistered, unsterilised and not microchipped.”
But never fear, the government isn't panicking about thousands of dead cats. Despite the laws being passed with a publicity campaign which declared the laws would reduce pound killing, Minister for Local Government Paul Miles said;
“It was expected that euthanasia rates would initially increase due to compulsory registration, microchipping, sterilisation and management of cats,” he said. “The introduction of a requirement for sterilisation means that there are fewer unwanted cats born and as a consequence a decrease in the number of cats needing to be euthanised in the future can be expected.”
We are simply experiencing an expected rise in killing, you guys! Oh, that's ok then. I'm sure all the dead cats feel totally reassured that their deaths were strategic.
Except - how does that work, with council's not actually enforcing the laws?
We have the expected rise in killing, but no evidence of a correlating rise in responsible ownership, or the prosecution of non-compliant cat owners. So we got more killing, but no real benefit to cats.
WA has tried to introduce the most comprehensive cat laws in the country – but the big problem with cat laws has been revealed – just how do you enforce them?
I often have discussions with cat advocates; “we need mandatory desexing/ registration/ microchipping/ confinement!”, they’ll say; “if we had then the shelters wouldn’t be full of cats!”
My response is; if you want to keep cats out of shelters, why not offer services which help the small groups of people who are not already compliant, and unowned cats? To which I always get;
YEAH, BUT WHO’S GOING TO PAY FOR THAT?
And therein lies the rub – in their minds, cat laws are considered free, while services obviously cost money.
In the instance of WA, the government invested nearly three million dollars to build new cat pounds and buy traps. But this doesn't get close to covering the true cost of these laws. With cat laws, you’re going to need to literally go door to door, looking for non-compliant cat owners and then somehow prove they have a cat. Most councils don’t have the resources, staff or patience for this. So the easiest and most common way to enforce these laws? At the point of impoundment.
The current fine to collect an unregistered cat in WA = $200. A new cat from the newspaper? Probably free. Cat reclaims by owners are sitting at about 6%. That is - 94% of the time 'something else' is happening to the cat.
By using this vulnerable time to try and enforce our laws, we ensure a cat will die in a shelter who has an owner. We should never do anything which impedes or discourages a person from collecting their animal, and instead do everything we can to try and send the animal home. And we shouldn't impound cats when we know 94% of the time no one is coming to get them.
So short of paying a government department a huge sum to create a program to go door to door (pulling resources away from other programs like outreach desexing), cat laws are unenforceable.
Assuming the aim of the law is to keep cats out of pounds (you can stop reading now, if the law you’re designing is simply to ‘punish cat owners’ or ‘get cats off the street at any cost’) we need to understand what happens when we do try to enforce our new laws.
Where do kittens come from?
It is generally accepted that the owned cat population is in negative growth (ie. less cats are born from owned parents, than are needed to replace them);
“The number of owned cats in Australia has been in steady decline for 20 years.”
“There’s no evidence that owned cats replenish the unowned population. It is more likely that the net movement is in the other direction, due to the differential desexing rates – in fact we’re getting them moving from the unowned, into the owned population.” Kersti Seksel
People who are ‘good’ owners, already microchip and desex. Kittens have very little perceived value - you can't sell them for hundreds of dollars like puppies - so most litters from this group of people are ‘oops’ litters. Truly accidental litters make up a tiny fraction of the number of the kittens born each year
In most cases, owners who have an ‘oops’ litter are generally nice people and work to find these kittens homes themselves, so they don’t enter the shelter system. (ref) They then get their cat desexed.
People who are ‘bad’ (irresponsible) owners genuinely don’t care about the cat’s welfare. They likely acquired the cat through passive means and do not undertake other ‘good’ owner behaviours (taking the cat to the vet etc). When the cat has its first litter, mother cat and litter end up at the shelter. These guys are the ‘owned’ kittens/cats entering shelters and make up around 21% of intakes. (ref)
Disadvantaged owners, unowned and semi owned cats. I’ve put these guys all together, because they’re our biggest target for positive change.
Disadvantaged owners often fall foul of cat laws. In the case of mandatory desexing, they can’t afford or access the surgery. They’re elderly, or they’re mentally ill or they’re otherwise disengaged from society.
Semi-owned cats are free-roaming with varying levels of human care (she lives in their shed, they just give her food because she's hungry, she just showed up, they assumed she has another owner). Unowned cats are completely without a human carer, but may live in close proximity to humans (rubbish tips, schools, supermarkets, restaurants).
When these cats have litters, either all go to the shelter, or the kittens remain in the environment to continue the breeding cycle. These guys are large contributors to shelter cat numbers as urban cats are generally well fed and healthy (“80% of cats entering shelters were non-owned or semi-owned” ref)
Targeting ‘good’ owners isn’t necessary, as the contribution they make is minimal.
Targeting ‘bad’ owners is labour intensive/expensive. First you have to know where to look (we’re back to door knocking everyone). When you confront the owner, the cat will likely be handed over as there is no bond between pet and owner. If you do this on any kind of scale you increase shelter intakes (bad). Plus, since there is clearly the resources to support a cat, another cat will likely move in and chances are it will be undesexed and the cycle will continue.
Targeting disadvantaged owners doesn’t help them. If you fine them, they can’t afford to pay you. In the case of mandatory desexing, it can force them to give up their cat. Given they’re pet lovers, they’ll probably get another. So now you have one loved cat in the shelter, and a new cat in the home that is likely still not compliant with your laws.
Some semi-owners may be happy to comply with cat laws (excluding confinement) if they don’t already have the prescribed number of cats/can afford desexing. Other semi-owners may not have the resources to do more than feed, but we should encourage them to continue to do that and support them with accessible cat desexing surgery. To punish them for non-compliance ensures the cat either – loses its carer – or enters the shelter – or both. After impoundment, we can almost certainly guarantee another cat another moves in, continuing the cycle.
While unowned cats don’t give a hoot about your new laws and will continue doing that thing cats do. Do they now fall foul of the new laws? Then they’ll probably be trapped and killed in the shelter.
Go back and read them again if you’re not sure.
The answer is none of them. If anything, it targets the cats. More cats entering the shelter, not less. More cats remaining unclaimed, not less. More cats being killed, not less.
Some cat advocates understand all of this, but push ahead anyway. “Any law is better than keeping the status quo”, they’ll say. “We understand that there will initially be a spike in impounds/killing, but for the greater good we must restrict cat ownership today, to get a better result tomorrow”. It’s the old ‘kill them to be kind’ mentality.
But the truth is, there are no examples where the pursuit of these laws has seen a positive outcome for cats. There is no evidence that any variation has worked, ever. The ACT has had mandatory desexing for more than ten years, with impounds still going up. The City of Casey has confinement, registration, mandatory desexing and door knock, and their cat impounds remain constant (40% higher than other councils). City after city after city has struggled with cat laws unsuccessfully.
If we are to truly begin to see a reduction in the killing of cats in Australia, then we need to stop chasing a failed model and start looking at those programs which do work to keep cats from entering, and dying in shelters. We need to recognise that a pound or shelter is the worst place for a cat to be. Especially a cat who is anything but a house pet.
We must finally discard the myth that by ‘punishing owners’ we’re somehow helping cats. We must choose not to remain stuck in a system based on killing. Effective cat management takes more than simply dreaming up new cat laws; it’s going to take compassion and a completely different approach to put us on a new, successful path.
See also: Oops - Everything we know about cat management is wrong.