Cats and communities: lessons from animal management


BirdLife Australia often advises on laws and regulations that may impact wildlife. We work in consultation with communities, researchers and regulators to take holistic approaches to complex issues. We’ve invited Nell Thompson, an industry expert, to share insight into the nuances of domestic cat management in Australia.


If you're like me, adages such as, ‘know which way the wind blows’, ‘all roads lead to Rome’ or even ‘walk in others’ shoes’, don’t mean anything… until they do. A common saying that I am reminded of daily in my work is ‘perfection is the enemy of progress’. Years ago, I would have argued the point that without striving for perfection we would not have been giving the job our all. With a few more years, many conversations, and a lot of learning under my belt AND a much more open mind, I have come to realise that progress IS the goal, not perfection.


I work in the companion animal management space and one of the most challenging issues that I spend most of my time working on is cat management. It’s one of those issues that looks so simple, the answers seem so clear, but the more you learn the more complex it gets. My colleagues and I aim to work from an evidence base, meaning that for the solutions, strategies, or practices we propose we can trace the information back to something real, something researched, something not based in emotion, hearsay or what just seems to make sense at the time. We are grateful that in 2024 we do have a broad evidence base to work from as more and more people around the world contribute to the sector by sharing their successes and failures and the lessons learned from these.


So, what do we know about domestic cat management? We know that around 70% of the cats admitted to pounds and shelters arrive as ‘strays’. That is, an owner has not surrendered them. We also know that around 90% of these cats are not reclaimed. We used to assume that was because their owner didn’t care for them enough to reclaim them. We now know that it is because there is often no ‘owner’ to reclaim them. The reason I have strays in quotation marks is that we also now know that this group of cats comes from a variety of sources, many of them are what is now termed as semi-owned. That is, these cats might call a variety of locations ‘home’ and a variety of people do what they can for them, within their resource limitations, (such as provide food and shelter) as they feel empathy for the individual animal in front of them. So, then we thought that the people who had these cats in their lives must not care for them (as the predominant culture tells us cats should be cared for) either, but that also wasn’t true! You can see how much cringe-worthy judgement has been involved in our thinking over the years. There are many, many reasons why people may not have desexed, identified, and contained the cats in their lives. The more we engaged with people in this situation the more we realised they cared deeply for these cats and there were often numerous barriers in their way to doing, what we maintained, was the ‘right’ thing. These barriers include physical and mental health challenges, financial challenges, access to veterinary care challenges, language barriers and much more.


We were finally getting an understanding of why policies such as mandatory desexing and containment had zero impact on the issues they were meant to solve (i.e. if the cat does not have an owner who is going to desex or contain it?). We also began to understand why what we had been doing since cat legislation came into force, that is catching/trapping, impounding and euthanising, also made zero impact on the overall cat population. In fact, the data was suggesting that the cat population was growing. Whaaat?! The reason for this appears to be because as the human population increases, we provide more resource opportunities for the cats in the environment – makes sense once you say it out loud, right?


So, if what we have been doing isn’t working, what’s the solution?


Well, this is where the ‘progress before perfection’ comes in. All of us want to protect the environment, our native wildlife, AND cats themselves. We want nothing more than to see every cat desexed, identified, happily contained, and living long, happy and healthy lives. The reality is that the road we are travelling on now does not lead us to this Shangri-La. What we are seeing work in some areas around Australia is a process of respectful community engagement and outreach providing low or no cost desexing services (and other services) that is resulting in significantly less cats being admitted to pounds and shelters, more cats being taken into homes, many less kittens being born, less cat-related nuisance complaints and so many happy, and relieved, cat caretakers.  It turns out that in many locations this approach of working with people rather than against them is way more effective in controlling cat populations than the approach we have historically been using.


As passionate as we all are about our chosen issues, we need to remember that we are all human. We never quite know what is going on in someone else’s life and a helping hand can make a difference to an individual as well as to progress. Many of us share common ground and goals, wanting to safeguard wildlife and cats. These goals are not mutually exclusive and if we work together, we CAN make progress. As I write this from my home in rural Victoria, I can see small flocks of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos flying over my garden and property where I have spent so many hours planting wildlife friendly species of plants. My foster cat is looking out the window from her safe perch inside. I truly understand, and feel, the drive to protect the environment, as many of you do.


So, I will leave you with a few more adages to consider; ‘As to methods there are many, but principles are few’, ‘To solve a problem first we must understand it’ and ‘Catch more flies with honey than vinegar’. These sayings all mean something to me, and I hope now they do to you too.



Nell is the coordinator of the national Getting 2 Zero (G2Z) program, a program that provides consulting, support, and educational services at no charge to local governments and shelter organisations across Australia. G2Z is the primary national resource for any local government, not-for-profit or community aiming to improve outcomes on companion animal management issues. Nell is also the Secretary for the Australian Institute of Animal Management, the peak body for Local Government Animal Management officers. Nell is respected for her expert knowledge of companion animal welfare and management issues for the sector and community at large. She has practical and theoretical experience and training in animal behaviour, care, health and management, across multiple domestic species, gained and utilised across the veterinary, boarding and shelter sectors.



If you’d like to read more, the statistics in this piece were sourced from the following articles

Strategies to reduce the euthanasia of impounded dogs and cats used by councils in Victoria,

Admissions of cats to animal welfare shelters in Melbourne. Aust.

Characteristics of cat semi-owners

Stray and Owner-Relinquished Cats in Australia—Estimation of Numbers Entering Municipal Pounds, Shelters and Rescue Groups and Their Outcomes.

Solutions-Based Approach to Urban Cat Management—Case Studies of a One Welfare Approach to Urban Cat Management.

A Cat Is a Cat: Attachment to Community Cats Transcends Ownership Status.

Cat ownership perception and caretaking explored in an internet survey of people associated with cats.

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