Who's for Cats gets a rebrand

April 9, 2018

Who's for Cats was a campaign launched in 2007. It was based on the findings of a study by Monash University which revealed that one in four Victorians fed a cat that didn’t belong to them – cat lovers investing their own time and money in caring for free-roaming cats. 

There was literally an army standing by to help animal welfare groups improve cat welfare in the state of Victoria. With the right campaign to appeal to cat ‘feeders’ to desex the cat they are caring for (and to local vets to get involved) tens of thousands of cats would have been removed from the breeding population, drying up over half the intakes by simply stopping the flow of kittens.

But Victorian Animal Welfare agencies decided to go a different route. They would create a campaign to make people feel bad about giving a stray cat a little bit of food, and make people feel good about trapping and impounding unowned, or free-roaming cats. 

The solution
Feeding unowned cats isn’t the answer.
If you want to help you must either take ownership of a cat, or call your local council.
Please don’t feed a bigger problem.
-Who's for Cats website

Created by the Cat Crisis Coalition, the campaign was supported by some of Victoria’s peak animal welfare bodies: The Animal Welfare Science Centre; Australian Veterinary Association; Cat Protection Society; Department of Primary Industries; Lort Smith Animal Hospital; Lost Dogs Home; Monash University; Municipal Association of Victoria; RSPCA; and Victorian Animal Aid.

The Cat Crisis Coalition; the late Hugh Wirth (RSPCA Victoria), Graeme Smith (former CEO - The Lost Dogs’ Home), & Carol Webb (former Executive Director - The Cat Protection Society)
Heroes and villains

'Who's for Cats' featured TV, press, online and outdoor, including two posters clearly portraying two different behaviours towards un-owned, community cats.

Meet Dave. He sent two cats to his local pound and was hailed a ‘hero’ – ignoring the fact that his actions would almost certainly have resulted in the death of those cats.

Seemingly unaware of the irony, the villian in the 'Who's for Cats' is a lady showing un-owned cats some kindness by offering them food and support.

The campaign featured cats alongside rubbish and grafitti, and words like "diseased" and "nuisance" used to describe them.

They prey on wildlife, spray strong smelling urine around houses and cars, fight with owned cats, spread disease, yowl at night, and defecate in gardens and sandpit.

(Remember this was a campaign dreamed up by the agencies supposedly advocating for cats!)

Local council briefings were held to encourage councils to incorporate the ‘Who’s for cats?’ program in their domestic animal management plans. Presentations were made to interested groups across the state. The program was even added to the Victorian Government's 'Responsible Pet Ownership Education Program’, featured on the primary school curriculum. It’s estimated 25,000 children watched the commercial and were sent home with ‘Who’s for cats?’ material to share with their families.

In total, more than 150,000 campaign brochures and posters were distributed across Victoria. 50 ‘Who’s for cats?’ traps were provided to councils to assist with cat collection. And, over the two financial years from 2007 to 2009, the campaign cost approximately $220,000, exceeding the original $203,500 budget.

By the start of 2008, the real cost of the ‘Who’s for cats?’ campaign was beginning to show.

Who’s for Cats? sparks a media frenzy of anti-cat headlines
The results start rolling in

From late 2007, many council pounds and animal shelters across Victoria were reporting record numbers of cats being impounded and brought in for surrender, coinciding with the launch of the campaign. And by early 2008, it had reached crisis point in many cases.

So, if the aim of the campaign had been to drive up shelter intakes and killing to record levels, there’s no question that it succeeded.

Apr 23, 2008 – Pearcedale RSPCA inundated with impoundments

Shelter supervisor Carrie Mudge said... “The dramatic increase was likely the result of the Cat Crisis Coalition campaign to reduce the number of unregistered and fertile cats roaming in the area.”

The ‘Who’s for cats?’ campaign is asking people to stop feeding the problem and either take full ownership of the cat, or to do the humane thing and bring it to a shelter.“And judging by the huge increase we’ve seen this month, the campaign is working.”
Apr 29, 2008 – Record impoundments at RSPCA PeninsulaIt’s raining cats and no dogs at the RSPCA Peninsula Shelter.

Manager Carrie Mudge said that, as of last night, 382 cats and kittens had been handed in to the shelter this month... Ms Mudge said the recent ‘Who’s for cats?’ campaign encouraging Morningington Peninsula residents not to feed cats was to blame for the record numbers.

“We are struggling. We are trying to get as many as possible adopted, but every day more and more cats are getting handed in,” Ms Mudge said.
Skyrocketing impoundments and complaints

When ‘Who’s for cats?’ released its campaign update in August 2008, the stats revealed record numbers of complaint calls relating to cats, as well as an increase in surrenders/ impoundments compared to 2007 figures.

Further evidence of the campaign resulting in behavioural change comes from a recent RSPCA Inspectorate report. The report states that, compared to the previous financial year, there has been a 41.9% increase in the number of calls regarding cats and that “the increase began around January and has continued throughout the ‘Who’s for cats?’ campaign”.

Figures collected by the Cat Protection Society and the Lost Dogs’ Home for the 12-month periods pre and post-campaign launch, showed an increase from 24,122 cat impoundments/ surrenders (November 2006 – October 2007) to 28,565 post- launch (November 2007 – October 2008).

Something more sinister emerges

By painting cats as vermin that need to be ‘removed’, the campaign diminished the worth of cats and made them targets for abuse.

ABC – Nov 12, 2009 – Police probe cat decapitation

Warrnambool police in south-west Victoria are investigating the death of a domestic cat found on a nature strip on Tuesday morning with its head and tail cut off. The tortoiseshell cat was not microchipped and its owners have not been found. The attack, in Couch Street, comes less than two months after a pet cat in Maryborough was shot 13 times in the head with a slug gun. The Victorian president of the RSPCA, Dr Hugh Wirth, says violence against cats is increasing.

"Well it's an example of an outbreak of animal cruelty that is going on all too frequently in recent months," he said. "There are animals being mutilated, animals being put to death in very nasty, nasty circumstances."

Empowering the cat haters

A second survey conducted for the ‘Whos for cats?’ evaluation in March 2009 revealed the campaign wasn’t increasing the number of ‘responsibly owned’ cats in any significant manner. Most people activated by the campaign were ‘cat haters’ who trapped and brought cats to the shelter.

With the majority of people responding to campaign messages choosing to impound rather than take ownership of stray cats, it seems that ‘non’ owners have had the biggest impact by getting un-owned cats off the street.

Focus group research results provide further evidence that the majority of people taking action were not the semi-owners of cats themselves, but rather members of the wider community who were experiencing nuisance associated with un-owned cats. Focus group participants thought the ‘Who’s for cats?’ campaign gave people ‘moral permission’ to have stray cats impounded.

In conclusion, the report emphasised the importance of communicating to the ‘Daves’ in the community who are more likely to respond to the campaign messages – people who are experiencing nuisance behaviour associated with un-owned cats. They also acknowledged that many semi-owners have a bond with the cat they are feeding, and may therefore be unlikely to ever have it impounded.

Blame it on the sunshine

Victoria’s initiative continued to drive up impoundments and kill rates, with no positive impact on responsible ownership. That’s not a good look. So, the groups involved quickly realised they needed a new scapegoat to explain the problem.

Despite undeniable evidence that the ‘Who’s for cats?’ campaign was responsible for the rise in impounds, the groups introduced the idea that global warming was responsible for changing the reproductive behaviours of cats.

This theory didn’t stand up to even the most basic scientific scrutiny, but that didn’t stop groups using it extensively to explain the surge.


Declaring the program a success

“It appears to have worked,” says the conclusive ‘Who’s for cats?’ report.

This has demonstrated to the rest of Australia, and potentially the world, how these problems can be tackled effectively using a cooperative approach. It's terrific to see Victoria out in front of the field.

Evaluation measures have demonstrated high awareness in the community about the cat overpopulation problem and the consequences of feeding un-owned cats.

Since the launch of the campaign, evidence of behavioural change has become apparent through an increase in the number of cats entering shelters and pounds, and in the number of public queries about cats that have been received by government and welfare organisations.

The feedback from stakeholders involved in the campaign has been extremely positive. All stakeholders agreed that the cooperative campaign approach was effective, and that they would be willing to continue participating in this type of joint project in future.

The campaign was been measured based on the key performance indicators of more impounds, more complaints and less compassion for cats in the community. It brushed aside the wider, longer-term problems resulting from shelters and pounds being filled to bursting point and ignored the cold truth that untame cats who enter shelters are almost universally killed.

And, of course, they were still left with the major challenge of having alienated the cat-loving public, and yielded no results in changing the behaviour of semi-owners.

Do you think they learned anything from their mistakes?

Of course not.

The presentation might not be as dark and desolate, but the message is still the same - cats are a problem and that if they're not indoors they're doing something wrong.

In 2018, Zoos Victoria and RSPCA Victoria will launch Safe Cat, Safe Wildlife - an ongoing campaign to help cat owners give their cat the safest, happiest and longest life possible while ensuring they have no link to loss of wildlife.

We will provide an extensive and growing list of indoor enrichment ideas and transition advice, along with regular newsletters containing expert blogs. By making it easier for cat owners to keep their cat safe and happy at home we aim to reduce the risk to local wildlife from cat attack and reduce the risk of disease, fighting and road injuries to cats.

The RSPCA has teamed up with Zoos Victoria (who run cat culling programs which include training dogs to seek out cats to kill) and BirdLife Australia to create a campaign to continue to encourage people to remove cats from their communities. With a special focus on urban cat management;

Push to reduce wildlife killed by domestic cats

With the rates of native wildlife death sitting at alarming levels, Melbourne Zoo has teamed up with the RSPCA to illustrate to people the importance of keeping domestic cats away from their potential prey.

Domestic cats kill more than 77 million birds a year around the country, often when they are out hunting away from their homes.

To try to lower that number, a new “safe cat, safe wildlife” campaign has been launched.

And there's some familiar names to this campaign too;

You might recognise the name Dr. Carol Webb from the 'Who's for Cats' original campaign.

Jan 20, 2008 – ‘It’s not mean to keep strays lean’

“Feeding an un-owned cat enables it to grow strong enough to reproduce which in turn results in more kittens being born into a life of disease and neglect,” Dr (Carole) Webb said.

“We know many people – often very well intentioned people demonstrating genuine care – feed un-owned cats without realising their actions are contributing to the growth of the stray and feral cat population.

People feeding a stray cat should contact the council to either take ownership or take the cat to a shelter, she said.

In addition, Dr. Webb also faced criticism for her sheltering processes when in 2009, when she was the Cat Protection Society's Executive Director, of the 12,491 cats received, just 1,143 left the organisation alive… or just 9%. The rest (91%) were killed.

5 June, 2005 - Unloved Kittens Leave a Job No one Could Want

Cats are the passion of Dr Webb's life. She is the head of the Cat Protection Society of Victoria.

In our photograph, you'll notice Friday's intake running cheerfully amok with cat-curiosity. This isn't how it actually works.

Instead, Dr Webb takes each animal - or "person", as she likes to say - into the privacy of her office. This is so the rest of the mewling mob don't freak out. In between each consultation, Dr Webb settles herself, so that she's neither seething with anger nor shuddering with sobs.

After assessing the kitten's health and temperament, along with how much space is available at the society's shelter (300 places maximum), Webb decides whether the little chap will live or die. Even if every unwanted cat is brimming with vitality and winning personality, about two-thirds of the day's intake are put to sleep with an overdose of anaesthetic, zipped into a body bag and put into the freezer awaiting cremation.
It's very quiet and peaceful, the killing. "You need to be very focused on the animal," she says. At night, every night, those cats come into Dr Webb's dreams. "Especially their eyes."

So far, Dr Webb has delivered about 200,000 healthy cats to the big sleep.
The average life of a shelter worker is six months. "I understand why people have to get out, but I can't," says Dr Webb. "There is no one willing to take my place."

There are more than 30,000 unwanted cats born in Victoria every year. More than half of these end up in Carole Webb's office. She kills about 10,000 a year.

There's an overused saying that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." (Albert Einstein). This is an absolute example of the same people, doing the same thing over and over, through the decades and having not just not found a solution, but actively resisting even the investigation of solutions found by other people with different thinking who have had the success they claim to be working towards.

Bringing the obvious solution into focus

Why are so many headaches and so much heartache caused by urban and suburban cat management programs? Well, for one, cats are Australia’s second favourite pet, making lethal management programs hugely unpopular with the public. And crucially, they fail to solve the problem of stray cats.

The reason they fail miserably is simple. When cats are removed from a location to be rehomed or killed, other cats quickly move in to the vacant environment. In short, cats live where cats can live. And they’ve lived like this for as long as we’ve lived in cities.

The 'Who's for cats?' program failed to acknowledge this reality. It also failed to work in harmony with cat lovers in the community. It simply expanded and amplified doing what we know doesn't work, at great cost to cat welfare. 

This supposedly new campaign does exactly the same thing, but giving 'Who's for Cats' a modern, "cullservation" makeover doesn't change the fact that programs which simply berate and blame cat owners are doomed to fail to achieve any aim which benefits cats or the community. The agencies which roll these programs out might get to do some back-slapping and enjoy some media face-time, but in reality continuing to encourage the public to see free-roaming cats as a "problem" rather than a vulnerable animal to be respected, protected and offered kindness, just continues to create further hurdles to programs which do actually work to help and manage cats compassionately.

'Who's for Cats' needs to be retired. The sooner it and its supporters become animal sheltering history, the better for the cats of Victoria.

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