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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 5718

Mr RICHARD EVANS(10.31 a.m.) —Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, I welcome the opportunity of speaking on the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia Bill because I share your compassion for the environment. I am sure most members in this House have a great and undivided respect for the environment. In this bill, we are actually arguing over the mechanics on how to maintain and look after our heritage for future generations. Part of this bill is the appropriation of funds—$16 million—to look after and protect the native fauna. I want to address my comments today specifically to native fauna.

What I am about to say to the House may be derided and may concern some within the community because I am calling for the total eradication of domestic and feral cats from the Australian mainland and offshore islands by the year 2020. I make this statement without malice but with the utmost compassion for our native animals, a passion for Australia and its flora and fauna and with the deepest respect for cat owners within the community. I have family members who are cat owners and I am sure there are many people who have a great love for cats. It was Mark Twain who said that a home is not a home without a much loved, much petted and very well fed cat. Albert Schweitzer had a cat called Susie and he trained himself to write right-handed because Susie used to snuggle into his left hand which prohibited him from writing. Florence Nightingale had 50 cats at home which she looked after. A lot of things I am about to say today are supported by the cat protection society of Victoria as well, but not the total eradication of cats, which is what I am calling for.

We all seem to be aware of the introduced species such as the Queensland cane toad, rabbits, foxes, camels or even goats. However, by far the most destructive to our environment is the cat. I was not aware of the full impact of the cat on our environment—I believe few Australians are—but it was with somewhat of a shock that I learned through research that the domestic cat or, more correctly, the owned cat as well as the feral cat is a carnivore of the first order, eagerly and willingly eating its way through our precious and unique native fauna.

The cats of Australia have certainly made their choice, and it is the millions of native animals that they eat or kill each year. Let me make it perfectly clear. The difference between the moggy next door and the feral cat is only one meal. A hungry moggy can and does kill native animals. I say again that we really must, for the sake of our environment, change our way of thinking about cats. They are not, nor have they ever been, the cute kitten featured in children's books and gift cards and found in one in every three homes in Australia. The domestic cat is an efficient and indiscriminate killer. It can quickly and easily revert to its wild state and live as a feral animal without any human contact.

This cat problem is a huge problem for Australia. Their impact on the environment is huge and the solution demands a huge undertaking by government and the community, as well as a huge sacrifice by cat owners. Essentially, moggies are only domestic when they are properly cared for, well fed, de-sexed, trained and kept indoors. Indeed, cats move from domestic to feral and back to domestic depending on their circumstances. Most importantly, it is only domestic when it is well fed by humans. At any other time and in any other circumstance it is a known killer of native animals. Its natural instincts make it an irrepressible killer and hunter, with a preference for native animals either as food or sport.

Even under household circumstances, domestic cats bring home five to 10 birds each, on average, per year. This results in millions of birds being killed annually in large cities like Melbourne and Sydney. This predation accounts for most of the young birds bred in suburban areas each year. In addition, cats are known to kill and eat more than 100 species of birds, 50 species of mammals, 50 species of reptiles, three species of frogs and numerous invertebrate animals.

I have in my box today a number of animals supplied to me by the Museum of Western Australia which I was going to table, but I think it is probably not appropriate. They include a western rosella, a bandicoot, a chocolate wattled bat, a possum, a native rat and a honey possum. These have been killed by cats. I thank the Museum of Western Australia.

Cats kill prey up to their own body size and most of Australia's endangered and vulnerable mammals, birds and reptiles are in this category. They are aggressively adaptable, vary in size depending on their preferred prey and vary in colour depending on their environment. I spoke to a ranger from the Northern Territory who told me that the biggest feral cat he has seen in the Northern Territory was the size of a dingo. That concerned me and certainly concerned him when he was chasing it.

The exact numbers of feral cats differs depending on whom you speak to. Mr Bob Martin, the then New South Wales opposition spokesman on agriculture, claimed in 1993 that feral cats numbered around 18 million. In 1994, the then Queensland land minister, Molly Robson, claimed numbers to be up to 12 million, and other sources suggest 5 million. Although these numbers sound significant, they must be considered and understood in appropriate terms.

It is necessary to briefly review a few facts about Australian native animals in general. In this case I have chosen some examples that are part of a feral cat's dietary menu. These facts are both alarming and a sad indictment on our understanding of our native species. However, the facts speak for themselves.

Australia has more threatened species of amphibians and reptiles than any other country in the world. In this century alone, Australia has one-third of all recorded world extinctions of mammal species. Since the European settlement of Australia—a comparatively short period of time—more than one-third of arid Australia's original mammal species have vanished.

Medium-sized mammals such as bandicoots, bilbies, hare-wallabies, woylies, boodies, possums and numbats have become either totally or locally extinct in Australia's arid zone. It has been determined that Australia has 1,031 threatened species—we are only second in the world to the USA in this regard.

To realise the significance of this in real terms, I take the example of the 81 species of Australian native wombats, possums and kangaroos. Of these, six are now extinct, 11 endangered and a further 23 are vulnerable. Another example is: of the original 11 species of bandicoots and bilbies, three are extinct, two endangered and four vulnerable. Nine of the original species are in real trouble.

A long list supplied by the Australian Bureau of Statistics specifying the main species particularly affected by cats has 38 specific examples. They include the Antarctic tern, the red-fronted parrot, the bilby, the long-footed potoroo and the numbat.

Current figures supplied in my research assume that, on average, there is one feral cat for each 15 square kilometres. This means that there may be around 130,000 feral cats in the arid interior of Western Australia alone. Let me be perfectly clear that this example we are speaking about represents only a small proportion of the Australian continent.

A feral cat kills at least three native animals each day. On those figures, in one year the total number of native animals killed by cats in the western desert alone could be a staggering 142 million. Alarming as this figure of 142 million is, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Cats in extreme densities can peak at around 220 cats per square kilometre, as recorded in the Seychelles this decade.

This could loosely mean that the figure of 142 million may well represent less than one per cent of the total carnage of our native fauna. One can only speculate as to the devastation across Australia, but the actual numbers may well be simply mind-blowing and well into the hundreds of millions each year, if not more.

John Seebeck of the Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, when speaking of cats, declared that it is high time these marauding bushrangers were locked away. The same document states Victorian scientist B.J. Coman's opinion as:

Let a cat out the house door and it should be immediately regarded as feral.

Let me be very clear on this issue. Australia is currently experiencing an ecological tragedy. For the most part today I have focused the argument of cat eradication mostly on one issue—the diet of and the carnage inflicted by cats. However, the impact on wildlife is not limited to kills; it includes the transmission of disease and death from those diseases. Injured animals and birds often die from cat bites within 36 hours either from shock or disease inflicted by cat bites or scratches.

Further studies have shown that 10 per cent of urban and 20 per cent of unowned cats are infected with larval stages of tapeworm and that cats carry ringworm. To my way of thinking, cats are killers either through their diet in that they consume native animals, through their habit and character in that they are natural hunters and killers who can kill without the need to consume their prey, or through hosting a suite of diseases and parasites that may not affect humans but do have an impact on other animals.

This option of eradication of all cats by the year 2020 to save our wildlife will not be accepted without some strong opposition. Let us look at the usual range of reasons for Australians keeping the more than three million domestic cats that we have in Australia. There is no question that most families with cats look after them—they are well fed, well petted and well loved and they stay inside at night-time—but a lot of cats do not.

The companionship argument is somewhat short-lived because in South Australia, for example, animal welfare agencies destroy more than 10,000 unwanted cats each year and Victoria is said to have some 300,000 stray cats. Multiply this figure across Australia and maybe the companionship offered by cats is not all that popular.

As for the argument that they are effective in rodent control of the house mouse, the report of the Cat Working Party of 1992 states:

There is no evidence that cat predation has any significant impact on the population size of any introduced rodent in Australia . . .

The argument that cats are easier to control than dogs does not really hold up either. All you need to do is ask a cat owner who is trying to confine a cat to their own backyard. Cats may not keep you awake at night by barking, but they sure make a considerable racket when on the prowl for a mate.

I know the decision will be tough. We, the people of Australia, must make a conscious decision as to what is more important. We have a clear choice. We can choose either to have cats and risk the rapid decline of native animals or to seek the elimination of cats and the retention of our native fauna.

I am conscious of the time so I am going to wind up my speech by making a couple of recommendations. These are the recommendations that I think will help the eradication of the domestic cat and, subsequently, the feral cat because, as I said before, the domestic cat is only one good meal away from being feral. They will go far to restoring the natural balance of fauna in Australia.

I am calling for the registration of all cats and a display of cat identification at all times. I am also calling for the registration of litters—how, when and where the disposal took place. I am looking for mandatory veterinary reporting of cat mistreatment and neglect. I am looking for the total ban on experimentation on cats. I am looking for ownership by law to establish ownership and change of ownership registration.

I am also calling for the mandatory sterilisation of all cats over the age of six months unless owned by a registered breeder. I am also asking for limiting the number of cats to two per household, impounding stray and nuisance cats and a cat curfew. I am asking for an education program for owners, potential owners and school children on responsible care of pets as well as wildlife warnings on the damage they do to the environment. I am also asking for the registration of cat outlets and suppliers.

Let me just conclude by putting this argument in the hands of experts. I quote from an article by Mr Jack Kinnear from the Wildlife Research Centre at Woodvale in Western Australia, which is in the electorate of Cowan. He states:

From a strictly scientific viewpoint, the jury is out regarding cats because the necessary research has not been done.

From a common sense viewpoint, the jury is in because, all things considered, it is hard to dismiss this adaptable carnivore as a bit-player in the struggle for existence in the Australian bush. It is time to get serious about cats.

I reiterate: it is time we in Australia get serious about cats.