New cat policy to target strays, not pets
A ‘curfew-lite’ to contain domestic cats has been deprioritised by Merri-bek Council
Updated: Friday, December 9, 2022
MERRI-BEK Council will not go ahead with a controversial ‘curfew-lite’ strategy to contain domestic cats and instead will focus its attention onto the city’s stray cat problem.
The council was set on Wednesday night to adopt the containment strategy which had a focus on domesticated cats but councillors instead have instructed staff to put more resources into combatting the city’s estimated 6000-plus stray cats.
The strategy that was to have been adopted had an emphasis on voluntary containment on their owners’ properties of pet cats but some residents feared it was a trojan horse for a compulsory curfew in a few years’ time.
After a lengthy debate and hearing from residents and animal experts – and to applause from the public gallery – councillors voted for a different approach to that recommended by council officers.
The policy adopted is multi-faceted but its thrust is on targeting semi-owned and unowned cats and encouraging people who feed stray cats to take ownership of them and to take advantage of free desexing and vaccination programs.
“Curfews don’t resolve anything,” said Cr Sue Bolton who put forward the alternative policy adopted by the council. “They target cats that are less likely to be predators because they’re well fed, and they don’t do anything about stray cats which are the real cause of nuisance and threat to wildlife.”
If Merri-bek had adopted a curfew, it would have joined 37 other Victorian councils that have either a dusk to dawn or a 24-hour curfew.
The cat containment strategy grew out of a domestic management plan adopted in November last year. One plank of that plan was to explore a cat curfew similar to those introduced by some neighbouring councils.
Community consultation this year found support for stronger cat management by the council, with 45% of almost 1700 people who took part in a council survey voting for a 24-hour curfew. Cat curfews are also supported by the RSPCA.
But opponents of a curfew said it would make no difference to the real problem of stray cats, and would impose a costly burden on renters who often were unable to afford or prevented by their landlords from installing cat cages and other measures to contain their pets.
“Curfews don’t resolve anything. They target cats that are less likely to be predators because they’re well fed, and they don’t do anything about stray cats.”
— Cr Sue Bolton
The council report presented on Wednesday recommended a softer ‘curfew-lite’ approach of voluntary containment of pet cats.
It said there was little evidence that mandatory cat curfews were effective in containing cats to their owner’s property, and they could lead to cat owners avoiding registering their pets along with increased rates of cat impoundment.
The report said a mandatory curfew could also cause hostile relations between neighbours and was difficult to enforce.
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Jacquie Rand from the Queensland-based Australian Pet Welfare Foundation said even a voluntary containment policy was ill-conceived.
She said it was estimated that there were 6000 stray or semi-owned cats in Merri-bek, and they were the real problem both to other cats and to native wildlife.
“While it seems logical that mandated containment would reduce the number of wandering cats and associated issues, this assumption is not supported by evidence,” she said. “It’s not effective because most wandering cats are strays with no owner to contain them … Most of the stray cats are fed by compassionate people who do not perceive themselves to be the owner.”
She added that even for domesticated cats, containment was often not possible, especially for low income households.
“Over 10,000 households in Merri-bek live on less than $650 a week. Many live in rental properties with poor fencing, no air-conditioning and often no screens on the windows. How can they afford $700 to $2000 for a cat containment system?”
A resident who spoke at the council meeting described any form of cat containment policy as akin to a “feel good strategy”, while no advocates for a curfew spoke at the meeting.
Cr Bolton said the council needed to have a multi-pronged strategy that focussed on unowned and semi-owned cats with targeting of stray cat hot spots and more education of people who fed stray cats about their responsibilities.
“I always naively had a view in the past that curfews worked and would protect wildlife,” she said.
“But all of these containment strategies and curfews only apply to pet cats. They don’t apply to the myriad of something like 7000-odd stray cats that we have wandering around in Merri-bek so it will actually do nothing to save wildlife, stop nuisance, stop cats going into the pound. .. we need to deal with the question of unowned and semi-owned cats in particular.”
The new policy was passed unanimously with no councillors speaking against it.