Stray cats would be desexed and released to reduce the number of animals euthanased under a proposal being considered by the New South Wales government.
- A free desexing service has reduced the number of kittens coming into an RSPCA shelter by one-third
- A government-commissioned report says $2 million should be put towards expanding the service across NSW
- People who are “semi-owners” who feed stray cats can also help reduce numbers by getting cats de-sexed for free
Stray cats and the threat they pose to wildlife have long divided the community, pitting councils pushing for more powers to trap and euthanase animals against cat lovers.
But animal welfare advocates have been quietly working with councils on a long-term solution that has the potential to end the bitter disputes.
Free desexing for cats and support for people described as “semi-owners” is already being adopted by 11 NSW councils, with an RSPCA trial in Greenacre in Sydney’s south-west reducing the number of kittens coming into the shelter from the area by a third in its first year.
A draft Rehoming Practices Review report, prepared by the Centre for International Economics for the NSW Office of Local Government, has backed the program and recommended the government spend $2 million a year to expand it across the state.
Emeritus professor Jacquie Rand from the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science is leading a five-year research project into community cat programs.
Dr Rand told ABC Radio Sydney Mornings presenter Sarah Macdonald it was far more effective and less traumatic than the current process of trapping and euthanasing them.
“Most of the stray cats, in fact, are being fed by people, compassionate people, who care for them,” Dr Rand, who is also chief scientist for the Australian Pet Welfare Foundation, said.
She said the cost of desexing and microchipping — about $300 plus registration fees — was a barrier to taking ownership of cats.
The community cat programs would target low-income areas where there are complaints about stray cats.
“It’s not rocket science, if we just desex cats, we stop kittens being born to die.”
The report being considered by the local government minister has recommended a $10 million investment over five years in free desexing, microchipping, and registration, and has predicted would lead to a one-third reduction in the number of cats and kittens put down.
However, Dr Rand said double that amount of money would be needed to achieve that level of reduction, given the labour-intensive work of micro-targeting an area.
Stray cat feeders ‘demonised’
Simon Kong was getting a coffee in September when he spotted a “white ball of fluff” near his car.
After he brought the friendly stray to his Regents Park home in Sydney’s west, he realised she was pregnant so he continued to care for her and her four kittens when they were born.
Soon after, a friend mentioned a stray cat and her kittens were living in his apartment block, so Mr Kong offered to care for them temporarily as well.
The musician was stressing about how he could raise the money to pay for desexing all of them when an RSPCA employee mentioned their free desexing program.
“It was such a relief. Otherwise, I would not be able to afford that,” he said.
He said he now planned to keep a couple as pets and find homes for the rest.
Gemma Ma, manager of the RSPCA’s Keeping Cats Safe at Home program, said it was important to build trust with “semi-owners” like Mr Kong.
“Historically people who care for stray cats have been demonised but actually the people who are the semi-owners are these amazing compassionate humans, an amazing resource,” Dr Ma said.
“Often those people are prepared to take on responsibility for the cats if you can remove all the barriers to accessing desexing.”
For Ziad Naef, it was a matter of conscience when he noticed stray cats suffering in the alleyway near his solicitor’s office in Greenacre.
At first, he feared the RSPCA would punish him and trap the cats, but when he learnt they could help him with desexing and medication, he has been able to bring in more cats.
He has five cats at home and has given some to friends, while he has returned others to the car park or where he found them after they have been desexed.
“This is where they feel they have friends, they know where to sleep,” he said.
Concern for wildlife
While those cats will not be able to reproduce, in the short term they remain a threat to wildlife.
Cats are responsible for killing an estimated 1.7 billion native animals every year in Australia, according to a study by Australian National University honorary professor in wildlife conservation.
Barbara McKellar told ABC Radio Sydney there was a cluster of nine cats in her Dulwich Hill street where a woman feeds them. Recently, she spotted a kitten, which raised concerns that they were not desexed.
“So we have an exploding population,” Ms McKellar said.
She said they caught blue-tongue lizards, possums, and birds.
“They are causing devastation in this local area. And that’s very upsetting.”
Dr Ma admitted it could seem counterintuitive putting a cat back on the street, but she said the current approach of trapping and euthanasing strays had failed to curb the numbers living on the street.
She said a long-term view was needed.
“The intensity of the program is really important. We have to desex enough cats for it to work,” she said.
Reaching enough of the stray population relies on people who are caring for them to get the cats desexed as soon as they find them.
“We need to start to shift cultural norms and change the norm of having stray cats out in the community,” Dr Ma said.
A spokesperson for the Office of Local Government said the government was considering the draft report and what was needed to reduce unnecessary euthanasia.