Hooray! Moreland CC’s feral cat “trap-neuter-release” proposal scrapped

Let’s all breathe a sigh of relief that common sense has momentarily prevailed, in a small win for conservation.

Image: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/

An old friend of mine, who is now a councillor with the Moreland City Council (which covers ~51km2 north of Melbourne city), recently posted on her Facebook page that the council was considering trialling a TNR approach, and what did her constituents think of that? For those not familiar with it, TNR refers to the “trap-neuter-release” (or trap-neuter-return) method which attempts to control feral cat populations by desexing cats trapped by residents, then “returning them to their natural environment”, as poetically phrased by the  Moreland Leader newspaper. Don’t even get me started on the concept of feral cats being part of “the natural environment”…

Many residents posted comments in response to the online newspaper article covering the proposal, with the usual spectrum of opinions being represented (101 in total!):

“These cats have done nothing wrong, they are a result of heartless thoughtless humans dumping their unwanted animals in the bush to fend for themselves”

And then:

“Dear Stray / Feral Cat, If you promise to behave yourself and only eat pest mice, rats and other introduced pest species then we are happy to have you as part of our ecosystem.

Dear Concerned Resident, Umm don’t tell anyone this but as the name implies I am a Stray / Feral cat I kill indiscriminately and for fun. I don’t care if it’s a pest species or a Ring Tail possum or Rainbow Lorikeet I just can’t help myself.”

Image: http://envirowire.wordpress.com/2008/12/10/wwf-claims-endangered-species-shortfall/damage-by-feral-cats/

Others who saw my resulting rant on said councillor’s Facebook page had the same reaction: “WHAT??? They can’t be serious?!? Surely that’s not legal!!” Apparently not, and thankfully, the Department of Primary Industries has stepped in and said that such a program would be illegal under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, because:

“It is not sufficient to desex and return a cat to a life of disease and neglect and we do not support such a program” (Dr. Carole Webb, DPI – the Leader article on the announcement is here).

To me, the logic behind this decision is a bit off – there is always so much concern for the wellbeing of the cats, not the animals that are going to become their meals once released. We know that cats have an immeasurable impact on native wildlife and I think it’s really sad that some people, based on their comments, seemed to think that urban areas like Moreland no longer support native species worth sparing from the newly neutered cats. I think that if you look hard enough you’ll at least find many native bats, lizards, frogs and birds alongside the rats and the mynas in these areas. The concept that feral cats only eat pests, and that for some reason things like pigeons warrant less ethical consideration than cats, is rather perverse. At least the right decision has been made.

Having said that, many comments made by the public stated that the effectiveness of TNR in controlling feral cat populations had been demonstrated overseas. I’d like to see the evidence for this, because here are the findings of a report that Dr. Elizabeth Denny and Prof. Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney put together for the Invasive Animal CRC:

Image: Wikimedia, Stavrolo

“Advocates of such programs (Scott et al 2002; Levy et al 2003; Levy et al 2004) are adamant that TNR, combined with an adoption component, can be successful at reducing cat populations if sufficient resources and time are allowed. However, such results have rarely been demonstrated, irrespective of resources (Foley et al 2005)… The one thing that all researchers in the area of TNR agree on is that the technique is unlikely to be effective in widely dispersed, open cat populations, as occurs throughout much of the Australian mainland.”

This issue tends to cause great emotion, as people think of their own precious pet cats, which they personally ensure stay inside and don’t run about depleting our fauna. Good for them.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t change the fact that because of many irresponsible owners, feral cats remain a huge threat to native species, as well as human health by acting as vectors for things like toxoplasmosis. Until we can control the way these people manage their pets (and compulsory desexing would be a good start), we cannot control the problem. Conducting TNR on a small proportion of the feral population is not the answer.

New evidence! This just out, 11/01/2103: A new study published in Conservation Biology which uses Hawaii as a case study shows that TNR is likely to be ineffective and expensive as a means of controlling cat populations, and concludes that “reducing the rate of abandonment of domestic cats appears to be a more effective solution for reducing the abundance of feral cats.” http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01935.x/abstract


Denny, E. A., and Dickman, C. R. (2010) Review of cat ecology and management strategies in Australia. Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre, Canberra, p36. http://www.feral.org.au/review-of-cat-ecology-and-management-strategies-in-australia/


A long postscript:

Coincidentally, I stumbled upon this statement in a paper I was reading today as part of a review (not on cats)  that myself and others are carrying out. I would like to direct it to all those I’ve had pub arguments with, who like to say that dogs are just as bad as cats:

Six reasons why cats differ from canids (May & Norton 1996, and references therein):

1. They have a partially arborial habit (I would paraphrase this as “they can eat things in trees”)

2. They have excellent night vision, unlike the canids, which rely on highly developed olfactory senses.

3. When live prey are available, they do not rely on water, so can persist in the arid zone

4. They prey more heavily upon birds and reptiles than canids (although the avian component of the diet is still considered to be minimal)

5. They appear to be more selective in their choice of prey than canids

6. Unlike canids, cats are generally not scavengers (my interpretation: they kill prey instead of eating what’s already had the gong)

May, S. A., and T. W. Norton (1996) Influence of fragmentation and disturbance on the potential impact of feral predators on native fauna in Australian forest ecosystems. Wildlife Research 23, 387-400.


  1. You are so heartless. strays are not strays because they chose that life. It is the people that dump them in the street that are the problem. increase the punishment for abandoning animals and issue is resolved. TNR is a great idea. it stops cats from popping out more homeless cats. why do you not see that as a good thing. Cats are not a malevolent species. they do not purposefully screw your day over. Oh no! a bird was eaten native to the area! Guess what that is natural selection. It happens. what is not natural is people getting pets and just releasing them in the street.. I mean i’m pretty sure the cat did not want to be homeless with the only choice of food is a native bird……. please respond. Travis

    1. Hi Travis – what an interesting perspective that is. A couple of your points I have already addressed. Namely, no, TNR does not stop “cats from popping out more homeless cats”. The scientific data shows that it does not work, not matter how much people would like to think that it does. Secondly, the decision to scrap the TNR approach was made not because of the impact the cats would have on native wildlife, but because it was deemed cruel to re-release them to a life on the street where they would contract diseases and possibly starve. So it is in fact the advocates of TNR that are being “heartless”.

      I wholeheartedly agree that it is people that are the problem, and will continue to be the problem until compulsory neutering is introduced. We now have several hundred years of evidence that all individuals cannot responsibly manage their pet cats, even if the majority do. I find it interesting that you chose to use the term “strays” and “homeless”, thus divorcing your comment from the problem of “ferals” and all that comes with it. These are not all miraculously stray cats, freshly dumped by a cruel human. Many are in fact ferals, born in the wild. And it is not merely a native bird that they hunt, but thousands. Thousands of native mammals driven to the brink (or all the way to) extinction. Thousands of frogs and lizards. I’m pretty sure these also “did not want” to be eaten and “had no choice”!

      Clearly, this is a values-based emotive argument. And frankly, I find it sad that you choose to value domestic and feral cats over native wildlife. Cats may not be purposefully be “screwing over my day”, but we as Europeans have done a hell of a good job screwing over much of this country. If you see the actions of yourself and fellow human beings as “natural” then I guess you could take the “natural selection” argument. In that case, everything we do is “natural”, as we are merely a component of nature, and the counter-actions we take to mitigate all past clearing, polluting, and introduction of exotic predators is unnecessary. Hey, it’s all “natural”!

      …I personally find that perspective arrogant, convenient and lazy. I would like to take the harder, more confronting route, take responsibility, and attempt to undo some of the damage we have done. Cats are just one component of that, and TNR is not the answer.

    2. HI Travis, I agree with Pia, these are not strays which have been forgotten because of people. These are uncontrollably breeding animals which are not eating “a bird” it is thousands. This “lucky country” which you live in….is being destroyed very slowly but it’s happening. And it is because of people that it is happening. Why would you be blind to this fact- that something as small as “a bird” could impact an entire chain of events where perhaps some bird becomes extinct, a flower no longer pollinates, and an entire endemic environment is lost….just because of cats. You walk outside and you see natural environments. You dont see this everywhere else in the world…because humans have destroyed it. Maintaining the cat population is just one step in a million which will maintain this world which you want to live in. Don’t be selfish.
      Secondly- someone was arguing further down on decisions an animal would make if they were to choose their testicles or not- what about the decisions of the animals which are being killed by a feral animal which is killing, not even just for survival…just because it’s their instinct….what about them???
      Finally you tried to quote about Natural selection…I am confused…it is not natural for this predator to be in this environment? Are you sure that is what you meant? If so…it is exemplary of exactly how far your knowledge goes on this matter. Please try and grasp the seriousness of every individual specie especially our natives.
      Also- I am “pretty sure” the cat would choose the bird over canned food any day- feral or otherwise….your own animal has most probably made that choice before. Do not be fooled. Cat’s do not kill to eat.

  2. Very interesting. I understand the reasoning but what is the alternative plan? Do we destroy them? Do we try to re-domesticate them? I have had cats most of my life. I have two now, both males. I asked them which they preferred; “A” a life of luxury with soft pillows and fishes to eat or “B” go outside to hunt and breed. They both chose “B” and asked for their testicles back.

    1. I do However see one problem- that is who wears the cost of these animals, the ones which are proliferating because you don’t desex your male animal. They are inconvenient, full of Zoonotic disease, which your own animal can catch. Do you want your own animal to get sick with feline aids because it’s mating with a stray??? is that what you call looking after??? if you do not know what zoonotic disease is- you need to consider if you are really educated enough to even argue in this situation. I think that these individuals who claim to “love” the specie should wear the cost, the desexing, the rehoming and re-establishing of these animals. Like the fox they are causing havoc and should be destroyed. Not the domestic cat (which by regulations already should be neutered and kept indoors) but these ferals which are breeding uncontrollably.

  3. I agree with Richard, we are the ones who took them in and domesticated them they didn’t ask for that. What are the alternatives to trying to slow the population? They wouldn’t be outside if people originally kept them, so that’s a NO….and then what certain death? I don’t think they would choose that over being outdoors and hunting. Trying to cut down on the population is a better alternative that doing nothing or death.

  4. interesting article. I’m also interested in the answer to the question Richard asked – what is the alternative?

  5. Hi Richard, Tammie, and J – I’m unsure as to whether you’re referring to domestic pet cats, the stray/feral cats that are being trapped in urban areas (which the post is mostly referring to), or feral cats in peri-urban and rural areas I’ll quickly address all three issues.

    For the domestic cats, they really need to be neutered and kept inside. If you are concerned that your cat would like to be outside with its testicles, then install a cat run, or accept the guilt that goes with responsibly owning and managing a pet that’s designed to roam and hunt. Pounce guards such as the “cat bib” (http://www.catgoods.com/index.php) might go some way in addressing the predation problem, but they don’t stop your cat from breeding with strays and adding propagules to the non-domestic population. You can’t have the best of both worlds, and if you do let your cat outside you’re really part of the problem, so perhaps consider a pet which doesn’t present these ethical and moral issues?

    For the stray/feral urban cats that are being trapped, if they’re not too far gone and can be re-domesticated this should certainly be an option (if they people that take them in are responsible!) But the majority of them will not be re-homed, in which case they need to be destroyed. This is of course very sad, and the same goes for domestic dogs. Why anyone would choose to purchase a pet from a pet store or breeder when there are so many lovely creatures with wonderful temperaments waiting on death row in animal shelters is completely beyond me, but that’s another issue I will refrain from going in to here…

    For peri-urban and rural feral cats, like any other invasive animal wreaking havoc in natural systems (cane toads, rabbits, foxes, goats, pigs etc.), population control is the only solution at our disposal at the moment. Of course it’s not actually a ‘solution’, because baiting and shooting only go a short way in slowing population growth. But as far as I’m aware, it’s the only option for the time being. I’m hoping an innovative and more effective solution which actually works will present itself to us one day – any ideas please let me know!

  6. As a pet owner who recently moved into an apartment complex which has a feral cat issue (a neighbor explained that they did a TNR program recently) I find TNR to be an inhumane attitude for the well being of the animal and our pets. So you neutered the population and does that prevent rabies, flees, ticks, worms, and other diseases in these animals and does it protect our pets, children or ourselves. No. The city ordinance is all cats and dogs have rabies shots and licenses. What is humane about using TNR as a loophole of some kind when the cost of TNR would have to have exceeded programs for adoption or destruction. Do I want to see animals destroyed… no… but subjecting this animal population to disease and thirst and starvation is much more cruel.

  7. What am I missing? You say TNR is insufficient to solve the problem. Then you say that the one idea you do have (re-homing some and killing the rest) is also insufficient. You even say that “…population control is the only solution at our disposal at the moment.” Well, guess what: TNR is a form of population control. What’s the purpose of this post, exactly? And how is killing a bunch of cats any better than the killing that these cats do in order to survive? At least they’re doing it to survive. It’s called ecology. It’s the natural order of things.

    1. Hi Dave – the point of the post was that I was angry that money was going to be dedicated to an expensive approach that we know is ineffective, for the sake of appeasing those who question the ethics of killing feral cats. That money could instead go to park management, or public schools, or hospitals, or bike paths – things that will actually benefit the community! You’re right, my previous response may have been confusing because TNR is a form of population control: it’s just not a good one. What I meant when I said “population control” was the things we do at the moment in an attempt to control cats: trapping, shooting, and/or euthanasing. Do I like it? No. Is it sad? Yes. Does mean we should try TNR? Hell no. I certainly wouldn’t say that “re-homing some and killing the rest” was my idea – I’m pretty sure that’s been going on for decades before I came along. And finally, thank you for telling me what ecology is. That argument is pretty much analogous to the “it’s called natural selection” excuse, which I already addressed in response to Travis earlier.

  8. I would argue that you are looking at this problem from the entirely wrong perspective Pia. I would never argue that the pigeon and the cat have different ethical values, however predators are more important to an ecosystem, but that is not why I would side with feral cats.

    You quote an official from the DPI: “It is not sufficient to desex and return a cat to a life of disease and neglect and we do not support such a program.” My issue with this quote that you seem to agree with is that disease and neglect is arbitrary, for a feral cat, you are describing life in the wild, a feral cat by definition has never been around people or been cared for by one, you seem to be describing semi-feral cats. Furthermore the entire platform of mandatory desexing of cats is barbaric.

    “Invasive” species are a fact of biological life, species will rise and fall, in the end we will all go extinct, the cat has been released in Australia and all the Queen’s Horses and All the Queen’s men cannot restart a pseudo-mystical status quo that existed before this. Predators kill prey species that is the nature of things. I am sorry you cannot accept that highly specialized island species have been found insufficient to cope with invasive species. I’m not arguing for people to release domestic cats into the environment, but I’m merely asking you to look beyond this wrap nature in a Mylar bag and have this status quo approach that you seem lockstep in support of maintaining.

    1. Hi Marie, thanks for your comment. I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that I think we can maintain a staus quo: if we had a baseline, what would it be? Before European settlement of Australia? Before Indigenous Australians arrived? I think you would be hard-pressed to find a conservation biologist who believes we can reverse the damage we’ve done: to attempt to do so would be completely naive and futile.

      Having said that, I am not in support of the “accept that we are part of the natural environment, as are the things we introduce” argument either. We are limited in what we can do because of socioeconomic constraints, but that’s not an excuse to do nothing. It comes down to cost and benefit – if something that does little damage is going to cost a lot to control, let it go. If something does a lot of damage and there are relatively cheap measures we can take to minimise that damage, then it’s a worthwhile investment. Ethics aside, TNR is not a worthwhile investment. Encouraging people to keep their cats inside and get them desexed is.

      I am also quite patriotic when it comes to Australian fauna and landscapes, and find it a bit insulting when people suggest that it’s the species’ fault for adapting to an environment which has relatively few native top predators. This adaptation has resulting in some beautiful creatures with fantastic names (think the kultarr, the ningaui, mulgara and kowari, the quokka, bandicoot, bilby and dibbler) which are now at risk of extinction because of cats. New Zealand of course also has no native predators, which has also had led to some magnificent results – so you’re happy for the kakapo or kiwi to go extinct because they didn’t see us coming? Because in the end, it is us that has caused this, even if we are a “fact of biological life”, and as I have said before, I think we need to take responsibility and action. Who wants future generations to grow up in a world composed solely of species that we have domesticated because we like their companionship, or like to eat them, or have flourished because they benefit from the cleared and homogenised environments we tend to create? Because we have decided that we are “natural” and it’s all too hard to try and mitigate some of the damage or change our behaviour? That’s such a depressing thought.

      As a final vaguely-related note, here’s an interesting article by Euan Ritchie about the role of our largest extant (almost) native predator, the dingo, in controlling invasive species:

  9. Google picture search made me stumble onto this. I must admit, that it is very hard for a former cat owner who loved his pets, to consider the killing of feral cats as a solution. I must also admit though, that here in Germany most of the pet owners doesn’t think much about their responsibilities. Owning a pet is a serious commitment, especially when you’re pet is a highly leathal predator in a foreign environment. It pains me to think of the killing of even one cat, but I believe there is much more at risk, if you just release them back (even neutered).

    If all pet owners had taken their responsibilities serious, things like that wouldn’t have to happen. It’s not the fault of the cats, but unfortunately they don’t have a conscience and they became the “intruders”. I think if somebody really loves cats in general and not only his own, he would make sure, that the offspring of his pets doesn’t have to live the kind of life of a feral cat. Someone who loves animals in general would also consider, to release any predator into a foreign environment.

  10. There is a program here in America where there are colonies of cats loose in the citys, and they are caught and fixed and then released. Works great here. But I guess colonies of cats are differnt in the bush rather than a city.

  11. You are absolutly right randy, the millions of feral cats in the Australian bush are each killing 3-4 animals a day! As you say in the States, do the math. Only remnants of our unique 200g to 5kg mammals species still exist. Most Australians have no idea these animals ever existed. The genie is out. We cannot return our bushland to its original state. BUT we can work to ensure our endangered species do not become extinct. Populations of feral cats have to be reduced esp. in habitat which supports these unique species. Australian Wildlife Conservation and other organizations are managing to conserve many species behind wire. I know, I volunteer with them. These people are absolutely dedicated. Trial attempts at releasing these mammals into areas with cats has proved totally useless. Our ancient species have no flight response to feline predation. Many just freeze, and get eaten. Right now there are sanctuaries with too many animals, but no where to put them. The answer is that cats and foxes just have to be destroyed especially in remote australia. Foxes can be baited but many remote cats eat only live prey (they injest blood for water requirements). I am working with scientists to create a device which reduces cat numbers humanely and remotely. Not easy, but I for one think it has to be done. Any inventive minds out there?

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