Cash for cats - Queensland council’s bounty on ferals

The time has come to stop pussy-footing around the feral cat - they have to be wiped from the Australian landscape. That’s the emphatic message from one forward-thinking group of local government officials in Queensland as on-going empirical and scientific evidence paints a grim picture of the pests’ impact on native birds and wildlife. 

For far too long Feral Felix has enjoyed a privileged and charmed life under the guise of a friendly pussycat out for a stroll in the bush. While local government authorities Australia-wide have offered bounties on wild dogs, foxes and even pigs for decades, feral cats have never made that list.

Yet the truth is that moggies running wild are a blood-thirsty blight which make wild dogs look rank outsiders in the native species killing stakes. But many animal lovers refuse to accept the proposition that cats in the bush should be shot on sight and their scalps traded for cash.

So what group of civic lawmakers would be prepared to risk the number of cat lovers’ votes with an election never too far from the horizon? We know political courage is a rare commodity but there’s one local council in Queensland that has exhibited something akin to Rambo’s fight against established forces. Members of this group of elected civic leaders have shrugged off threats to their tenure and thumbed their collective noses at detractors. 

They have added feral cats to their bounty list not once, but for the second year running. That courageous body is the enigmatically named Banana Shire Council in Queensland’s central west. For students of nomenclature, the name Banana in this context  has nothing to do with the fruit, as records show the area was named after a dun-coloured bullock called Banana. And what did this bovine do to deserve such a glowing accolade? Sadly, no answer is forthcoming.

To put it in geographic perspective, this Shire Council area of 15,755 sq km lies 120 km west of the industrial port city of Gladstone and a couple of hours’ drive to the beef capital of Rockhampton. Biloela is the administrative capital and there are very few banana plants around. The landscape, as in just about all Australian bush, has created a haven for the feral feline.

Reports of cats the size of  terriers attacking chicken coops in broad daylight prompted some soul searching by local councillors and last year they took that radical step - feral cats in their shire are worth $10 dead while kittens pay a $5 bounty. That’s the current situation and the Banana Shire civic leaders feel the scheme is totally justified. So it was repeated by unanimous vote for the 2018-19 financial year with an allocation of $25,000 in the annual budget to include cats in its feral pest control program. 

Mayor Nev Ferrier is firm and judicious as to his council’s administration of the feral cat bounty. “The bounty is available to anyone but to be eligible the person handing in the scalp must have written consent from the property owner within our shire,” he said. In other words, having your mates ship a couple of hundred cat scalps from southern Queensland to the check-in point at Biloela is unlikely to prove a money spinner.

Banana Shire official figures show 37 feral cat scalps were cashed in last year, 495 wild dog scalps and eight foxes. In the 2018-19 year there have been 11 feral cat scalps submitted at the time of writing along with 54 wild dog scalps and two foxes. “It’s too early to tell just how fully successful the program has been, but council is pleased it’s having some impact on the feral cat population,” Mayor Ferrier said.

According to the Mayor, the bounty program has the support of  both urban and rural residents. “It’s also supported by the local Wildlife Preservation Society who have some serious concerns on the impact feral cats are having on our native bird and wildlife populations,” he said

He also emphasised his council has introduced a subsidised cat de-sexing program in partnership with the Animal Welfare League and local vets. “This is designed to make it more affordable for financially disadvantaged residents or those with high volumes of domestic animals,” he said. “Participants are assessed for suitability by the Animal Welfare League and local vets. Council also has a high success rate in its program to relocate cats that end up in the pound and these two programs are designed to reduce the number of unwanted domestic cats escaping and adding to the feral population.”

So what of the feral cat’s genesis. The domestic cat, Felis catus, came to our shores with the First Fleet and rats and mice came with him, so they had a great game of cat and mouse around settled areas of the country.

It was all good fun until farmyard cats discovered the Australian bush had much to offer to satisfy their hunting instincts, thus the farm cat became a bush hunter. His descendants followed suit and there’s plenty of evidence that feral cats have been breeding in the wild since the first pair got together many decades ago.  

Meanwhile in Australia’s increasingly urban society, domestic cats have become lovable pets and often produce a litter of as many as six or eight. Now there are several ways to dispose of unwanted hungry kittens - give them to neighbours, put them in a bag with half a brick and consign them to the nearest water hole or, what many well-meaning but misguided people have done, dump them in the bush to fend for themselves. And they proved they’re more than capable of doing that.

The Banana Shire for one has proved a hugely favourable environment for feral cats and they appear to be proliferating there very successfully, hence the courageous bounty. Observing the laws of motion, the shire has also produced an avid campaigner against the feral cat menace. He’s local businessman and property owner Sib Torrisi, recognised as something of a legendry feral cat warrior in his area and beyond after his exposure on an ABC rural program.

But the underlying reason for his conversion and commitment as a feral cat hater has not been revealed until now. It stems from an incident a couple of weeks after he bought his 810 hectare mixed farm north of Biloela more than 20 years ago. Sib recalls it vividly as it was his first encounter with wild cats on his property.

“I was down by the river and heard a chirping noise. I looked around and about 30 feet up a tree was a big cat eating baby magpies out of a nest. I had a shotgun with me and blasted the bloody  thing out of the tree,” he recalls.

Subsequent studies into feral cat research have propelled him into  the conviction that a national approach and action are needed to control the menace. “I honestly believe many Australian species are on the brink of extinction because of cats,” Sib said. “If these environmentalists and greenies are fair dinkum they’d seriously do something about it.”

He supports his council’s continuation of a bounty on the feral killers and believes it’s a step in the right direction. But he says there should be a bigger incentive and greater public awareness of the on-going threat feral cats pose to our unique wildlife. “Running around for hours and incurring fuel costs for $10 doesn’t make any sense. A bounty of  $50 a head would be more realistic,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’ll be out on his own property every chance he gets with a self-loading .22 rifle or pump action shotgun, to which he’s entitled under his land holder’s licence. His tally over the years is “about 40 or 50” and he also plans to set traps. There are sophisticated and inexpensive feral animal traps available on the internet these days, but Sib’s a hands-on bloke who’ll build his own according to established blueprints. He’s not interested in claiming the council bounty and any feral cat he lays to rest will be strung up in a tree or left for the hawks and crows to feast on. His ongoing campaign against the cat menace is payback for the death of those baby magpies 30 feet up a tree two decades ago.

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