Chris Watson

Opinion

Letters from The Little Digger

OpinionChris Watson

Billy Hughes.

This will be something of a departure from the usual offerings on The Grip. I was going through some personal effects following relocation and came upon something I have been meaning to share for a while.

What follows are precise transcriptions of two letters from William Morris (Billy) Hughes, Australian Prime Minister 1915-1923 (known fondly as The Little Digger), to a Mr. JW Kitto, the deputy director of Posts & Telegraphs. The letters are dated February 1934, over a decade beyond Hughes’ stint as PM. Their content and context is self-explanatory. How they came to be in my possession is fairly simple: my father’s great uncle, Sir Albert (Bertie) Chadwick was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) in August 1963; these were among his papers when he died and were passed to my father and then to me. (Lest anyone suspect fabrication, I have the originals and am happy to send you a PDF scan.) I’d like to think that the letters had remained in Uncle Bertie’s collection due to their notoriety within OTC circles. Perhaps Mr Kitto had retained them with a sense of some pride, and they’d been handed down through the leadership of the OTC as some sort of customer service parable. But that’s all conjecture.

These letters came to mind again recently during an exceedingly tortuous month long process of trying to gain connection to PM Turnbull’s wonderfully antediluvian steampunk version of the NBN. During that month of constant bureaucratic bungling, just as my frustration was approaching flashpoint, I found the letters and my sense of humour (not to mention my sense of perspective) came rushing back. It is with great mirth that I note Billy had a full response to, and action on, his entreaty within a week. It’s a wonderful mirror image of my wranglings with present day telecommunications. The rapturous gratitude evident in the second letter was felt just as intensely in this household when the NBN eventually deigned to connect us.

But so much for all that; the Little Digger clearly had a flair for language. I enjoy the letters for his use of language alone and hope that you may do likewise. But just as he includes a Latin quotation from Horace in the penultimate paragraph of his thank you note to Mr Kitto, it brought to mind another well-known Horace quotation that I’m sure Mr Turnbull will be familiar with:

Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.

Change only the name and this story is about you.

 

Enjoy.

 

 

PALM BEACH.

February, 7th, 1934.

J. W. Kitto, Esq.,

Deputy Director, Posts & Telegraphs,

SYDNEY.

 

Dear Mr. Kitto,

                       For the last month I have been rusticating in this delightful spot and, although lulled to lethargy by its beauties and sleep-inducing air, I have from time to time been compelled to recognise that there is a world outside its Elysian scope, in which foolish men and women rush furiously and futilely hither seeking they know not what, but demanding with angry insistence that they get it – pronto, toute de suite, and without a moment’s delay. Some of these irrational and impatient people want me. And they will not desist from their importunity unless and until they get me. Not for them the snail-like mail; like greyhounds straining at the leash, they spurn with contemptuous gesture the rushing motor, and laugh derisively at mention of those Noah’s Arks, the trams, and turn with furious haste to the “Winged Light” and telegraph or telephone their peremptory demands. About the telegraph I say nothing, but about the telephone I feel something must be said. Hence this letter.

                First, let me tell you something about Palm Beach. Probably you know it quite well. But I do not think you have stayed down here for any length of time. If you had, I am quite sure this letter would not have been necessary. The permanent population of Palm Beach is not large, but is growing rapidly. Every week end, however, and on public holidays and for some months during the height of the summer the number of visitors runs into thousands. Many of these from time to time have occasion to use the telephone. And this brings me to the point I wish to make. The telephone at the Post Office – the only public telephone available – is housed in a box outside the Post Office, exposed to the fierce glare of the sun and the biting westerlies and heavy rain. There is no privacy. Every word a sender utters can be heard by the crowd on the Post Office verandah, and by passers by along the road – to say nothing of the neighbours in the adjoining house. The other day it happened that I had occasion to ring up my Broker to give him an order in reply to his telegram which had just come to hand. The whole of Palm Beach knows the stock I bought, the price I paid for it; in short, knows all my private business.

                The telephone is not lit up, and the approach at night is a dubious adventure. The Postmaster does his best and provides at his own expense a light when he hears people at the box. But they have to make their way there as best they can. When they get there, the light may be switched on – or it may not.

                As this phone is fairly rushed from 7 to 10 during the season, it ought to be properly lighted, so that it can be seen from the road and the pathway to it plainly seen. And in place of this wretched box, there ought to be a modern sound-proof, weather-proof cabinet.

                If you refer to the office records, you will find that this phone did hundreds of pounds worth of business in December-January this year. The business done amply warrants the small expenditure involved in substituting a modern cabinet for the present primitive box, and for provisions for lighting.

                I should be glad if you would look into this little matter at your early convenience. If you care to run down here some day during the next week or two, I shall be delighted to give you a cup of tea despite the stringent provisions of the Anti-Bribery and Corruption Act.

                In the meantime, I am,

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                                                W. M. HUGHES

 

PALM BEACH

February 12th, 1934.

J. W. Kitto, Esq.,

Deputy-Director, Posts and Telegraphs,

SYDNEY.

 

Dear Mr. Kitto,

                All Hail! Thane of Cawdor and Worker of Mighty Miracles. You have restored my fading faith in the efficacy of petitions respectfully worded and ending, as is seemly, in a prayer. Wonderful! Wonderful! On Friday, going to the Post Office whilst yet the day was young, musing on things in general and the inanity and ineptitude of governments in particular, contrasting sadly, the degeneracy of the present age with the bounding vivacity of other days, I raised my eyes in mute appeal to the Heavens, when LO! a wondrous vision swam before them. In the place of that rank and hideous ruin that had disfigured the fair landscape and by its rude and wretched mechanism had provoked even the righteous to profane and lurid works and evoked scornful derision from the ungodly there stood, passing fair, a lovely CABINET, standing shyly like a young maiden in some Arcadian Grove, awaiting the coming of her lover. For a moment I stood motionless, frozen in my tracks, gazing at this amazing metamorphosis, in wonderment. Was this a Cabinet of the Mind, a vision conjured up by vivid imagination impregnating the womb of Hope, a Mirage, a spiritual emanation, or was it real? And then all doubts vanished. It was there, a thing of substance. Like Alladin, I had rubbed the Magic Lamp and whispered in the ear of the Genii. And he had gone straight away and got the dashed thing.

                Wonderful and splendid. The poor postmaster is beside himself with pride and joy, and is going about with his hands outstretched trying to satisfy himself that he is awake.

                When you come down to Palm Beach – as you will do some day, if not to take tea with me, at all events to dip in its life giving waters – you will come to the Post Office and look at that Lovely Cabinet and be able to say with Horace “Exegi Monumentum perenius aere”. “I have reared for myself a monument more enduring than brass and loftier than the pyramids”.

                And you are going to have it all lighted up so that Barrenjoey Lighthouse will look like a tallow dip alongside it.

                For this relief much thanks.

                With kindest regards,

                I am, dear Mr. Kitto,

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                                                W. M. HUGHES

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer

Review, OpinionChris Watson

by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella

The adage about “standing on the shoulders of giants”, attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, is particularly relevant in the case of a book like Cat Wars. It’s an extended work of science journalism, richly referenced and supported by decades of field and laboratory experiments, hundreds of research papers, each of which has been vetted and verified by thousands of experts in their field. You could place it in the genre of popular science but really… works like this are the pinnacle of peer-review.

Unlike many peer-reviewed publications however, you’ll enjoy reading Cat Wars.

The disaster for biodiversity caused by free-ranging domestic cats has been well-known in ecological circles for decades but it is only relatively recently that the magnitude of the problem has started to gain wider awareness. Cat Wars, examining the problem from a rigorously evidence-based position, deserves to find wide readership. This can be an emotionally-charged topic with irrational fringe elements on both sides but the authors chart a steady course through a potential minefield of misinformation. No blithe hagiography of either camp, Cat Wars gives consideration to the claims and motivations of cat-lovers who would have all cats protected at any cost. But with fast-paced and entertaining writing, the authors bring validated research to bear on every point; piling up the evidence, leaving the reader with a clear understanding of the facts.

Mounting evidence shows that cats are a much bigger problem than we have acknowledged in the past and the authors of Cat Wars argue convincingly that we’re both logically and morally obliged to take steps to address this problem. This is the central thesis of Cat Wars and one which the authors support strongly. They so calmly, categorically and completely dismantle and debunk each counter-argument, that their conclusions are virtually unassailable.

Just as the dangers of DDT were little-known before Rachel Carson wrote her epochal Silent Spring, Cat Wars appears as the breaking of a wave that has been building for some time and is finally hitting with full force. Indeed comparisons to Carson’s book have already been drawn.

Cat Wars familiarises the reader with cats’ evolutionary history and goes on to describe their part in extinctions and the history of our interaction with the species. There are chapters on the rise to prominence of nature-based pursuits like bird watching and even a primer on population ecology in a chapter titled The Science of Decline. Most importantly, the authors have a stab at presenting the best solutions available to us at present. This part of the book also features a chapter systematically refuting the arguments for Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs which are commonly held up as a solution and, occasionally, even enshrined in law. As this chapter sets out comprehensively: TNR is no solution at all and may even make the problem worse.

It’s beyond the scope of this review to recap all of the major points but it’ll suffice to note that a spoiler alert is not necessary for me to discuss the major arguments presented in Cat Wars. The short version is: free-ranging cats, whether owned, un-owned or feral, are bad. They’re bad for native cat species due to the spread of disease and increased competition for resources. They’re obviously bad for the billions of native prey animals they take from our ecosystems. They’re also quite bad it seems, and this was the biggest eye-opener for me, for humans.

Cats in the United States are a vector for the Yersinia pestis bacterium, better-known to many of us as the black plague. Although cases of plague transmitted from cats to humans have been rare (just a few cases per decade) of greater concern is the viral disease rabies. This is slightly less rare with a few cases per year in the US, however there are 38,000 post-exposure prophylaxes administered each year (mostly the result of people coming into contact with a suspected rabid cat) costing US taxpayers a minimum of US$190 million annually.

But the stogie for worst cat-borne disease must go to the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. This single-celled bastard-of-a-thing infects 30—50 percent of humans on Earth and 22 percent (60 million) of the US population and we’re still unsure of precisely how the infection affects brain function in humans. (It is at least correlated, though not necessarily causally, with schizophrenia and suicide). And a significant host of T. gondii, you won’t be surprised to learn, is cats.

Personally, I’d always been more focused on cats’ destruction of wildlife. This chapter was a revelation. The role of cats in the spread of diseases is covered in detail in the chapter titled The Zombie Maker and should be required reading for anyone living with, or even coming into occasional contact with, cats.

As the above passages foreshadow, much of the research presented and many of the cases discussed in Cat Wars are quite US-centric. This is to be expected given that the authors are both from that country but they have done an admirable job of peppering the narrative with illustrative examples from other regions and even commentary from international researchers; John Woinarski and threatened species commissioner Greg Andrews pop up a couple of times and will be familiar names to antipodean readers familiar with the invasive species discourse in Australia. 

My only frustration with Cat Wars is the frequency with which the authors, building up a good head of steam on a particular argument, drop a note in parentheses along the lines of “(more on this in chapter XX)”, or “(see page XX)”. This is an understandable technique for preserving the readability of text and the flow of narrative but in some cases I think the arguments could be served better by brief digression to present references in situ. To this end, and this may just be a personal preference, I’d rather references were indicated in superscript. There is an exhaustive list of references presented alphabetically at the back of the book but it is difficult to attach these to particular points or arguments as they are not cited in the text.

Finally though, the conclusions drawn in Cat Wars and the solutions offered by the authors are as inescapable as they are daunting to consider. With such a large, deeply entrenched and well-funded pro-cat lobby it seems clear that the solution to how we reduce the number of free-ranging cats in the landscape will be one of marketing. (I’ll pause here for that shiver down your spine to subside.) It will come down to getting people to honestly evaluate what they cherish most dearly—with the hope that most people will opt for a rich, healthy and diverse natural world in preference to one pointlessly overrun with cats. It will require people to engage honestly with the facts presented by legitimate researchers and to reject their own biases. With pundits of all stripes proclaiming that we now live in the era of “post-fact politics” this might seem like a tall order. But in the end, it starts with everybody taking responsibility for their part in the solution.

A large feral cat stalking prey in the Australian outback.

Cat-owners need to adopt responsible ownership practices: indoor and contained cats are healthy, safe and happy cats. This is better for cats, better for wildlife and better for people.

Governments and the media need to take responsibility for recognising the validity of scientifically-acquired knowledge and remove TNR from serious discussion. It should be legislated against (certainly not for) and should be lumped with other irrational fringe beliefs like climate science denialism and contrail mind-control conspiracies.

Cat Wars may well stand alongside Silent Spring in the pantheon of classic nature writing. Let’s hope it is as effective in warding off an impending cat-induced biodiversity crisis as Silent Spring was in alerting us to the perils of DDT.

CBW

Listen to an interview with author Peter Marra by Phillip Adams on RN Late Night Live

 

Buy it at Andrew Isles

 

Support The Grip

Gotta Tick 'Em All

Birding, OpinionChris Watson

This piece first appeared in Australian Birdlife Magazine Vol. 5 No.3, September 2016.

Cast your mind back and you may remember an old Nintendo game from the 1990s where players would seek out fictional creatures and capture them to add them to their list—Pokémon.  

The latest version of the game, harnessing the cameras and GPS capability of smartphones, was released in early July and it didn’t take long for problems to arise. Within the first week of the game’s release, the Darwin Police had to remind players that they mustn’t enter their premises just because the game had designated the building a “Pokestop”.

Reports of car crashes and pedestrian accidents have been common, as have accusations of trespass as people chased Jigglypuffs and Charizards through suburban parks late at night—some Pokémon, it seems, are nocturnal. In the US, a series of muggings occurred when nefarious players lured others into isolated places. Bosnian players even had to be reminded to avoid wandering onto minefields, such was their Pokémon-induced stupor.

A lot of this should have a familiar ring to birdwatchers. We all know how single minded birders can be in pursuit of a lifer. There’re plenty of stories of birdwatchers, lurking behind binoculars, suspected of snooping. I’ve been grilled by the Australian Federal Police myself for straying too close to the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility toting high-end optics. There are also many regrettable instances of erratic driving, trespass and other ill-advised behaviour by birdwatchers in pursuit of their quarry.

But despite all the similarities, the biggest point of difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is the most obvious: birds are real. That’s not a small thing. Because birds are real, birdwatchers, from the rank beginner to the most experienced ornithologist, in their efforts to see as many species as possible, are learning about the world we live in and contributing to our understanding of its ecosystems.

Birdwatchers keep notebooks and submit their observations to online atlas projects where the information can be accessed by researchers and governments and used to inform studies of bird populations, movements and distribution, and make decisions about their conservation status and required levels of protection. Birdwatchers’ observations have informed recent decisions regarding the management of fire, mineral exploration and vegetation clearing.

Due in large part to the contributions of birdwatchers, our understanding of how birds occupy the landscape is more complete than for any other class of vertebrate on the planet.

But although my initial reflex was to dismiss Pokémon Go as mere skim milk to birding’s full cream, its phenomenal popularity clearly confirms one thing: our huge appetite for exploring, collecting and cataloguing. The similarity between the collecting mentality of birdwatching and the Pokémon tagline of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, shows the fascination with collecting to be a universal character of humanity.

So with the Twitchathon going national this year and the Aussie Backyard Bird Count in October, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. These are the extreme sports of birdwatching. It may take just the gentlest of nudges, as the interest in Pokémon Go begins to wane, for the listers of the virtual world to see their opportunity in an unaugmented world filled with multitudes of creatures which are even more spectacular and enchanting for their reality…

An iridescent flying creature which steals clothes pegs and trinkets from humans, but only if they’re blue? Satin Bowerbird—tick it off.

A ground-dwelling animal which constructs a mighty oven with delicate temperature control to hatch its young? Malleefowl—another one in the bag.

A huge flightless dinosaur-like beast with a single horn on its head and a vicious kick that could disembowel a would-be attacker?

Southern Cassowary—you beauty!

If they thought Pokémon Go was addictive, wait ‘til they try birding.

Contained Cats & Crowdfunding Conservation Justice

OpinionChris Watson

Kent Wilson shot his neighbours’ cat the other day. With nothing more to go on, that seems like a shitty thing to have done, doesn’t it? Predictably, the tabloid press and online trolls bought themselves an all-day ticket and went to town…

ADELAIDE CAT KILLER ESCAPES CONVICTION was the headline that 9news.com.au went with.

ADELAIDE HILLS MAN AVOIDS ANIMAL CRUELTY CONVICTION said the headline on 5mu.com.au

The Advertiser led with NATURE-LOVER KENT WILSON, WHO SHOT AND KILLED NEIGHBOUR’S CAT, SPARED ANIMAL CRUELTY CONVICTION BY COURT.

Never backwards in cramming as much eye-catching clickbait into a headline as possible, the Daily Mail went with an even more wordy headline: MODEL WHOSE CAT WAS SHOT AND BURIED BY HER NEIGHBOUR SAYS SHE IS NOW TOO SCARED TO WALK NEAR HIS PROPERTY AFTER HE ESCAPES PRISON SENTENCE.

You’ll notice, however, that all of these headlines share a common, and crucial, piece of information: no conviction was recorded against Mr Wilson and that’s important.

An earlier court proceeding had found Mr Wilson guilty of ill-treating an animal to cause death or harm, which he unsuccessfully appealed in the Supreme Court. Despite that failed appeal, at the sentencing, not only did he not get a prison sentence, but Mr Foley, in the Adelaide Magistrate’s Court, refused to record a conviction against him despite the urgings of lawyers for the RSPCA. Bizarrely, for an organisation which ostensibly concerns itself with cruelty to animals in a case that categorically involved no animal cruelty, the RSPCA were hoping that Mr Wilson might receive the maximum sentence for this offence; a $50,000 fine or four years in jail. Instead, Magistrate Foley recorded no conviction and, noting that Mr Wilson had already paid compensation to the cat’s owners, issued a fine of $2000.

In his sentencing remarks Magistrate Foley was very clear as to why he had decided to spare Mr Wilson a conviction for animal cruelty:

“The typical example involves a person who either grossly neglects an animal or whose motive is to simply cause pain and suffering. I accept you genuinely believed [the cat] was a threat to native wildlife on your property, particularly bird life.”

 Mr Wilson had previously been ordered to pay the RSPCA’s costs relating to the appeal.

A neighbour's cat in my back yard. Why do cats get a free pass?

RSPCA: For All Creatures Great & Small?

If all you do is scan such stories in the papers, that’s about as much information as you might have gleaned from the commercial media. As always though, there’s a lot more to it and the more you learn, the more understandable Mr Wilson’s actions become and the more perplexing becomes the RSPCA’s determination to pursue a legal decision against him.

Speaking on the phone with Mr Wilson the other day, his love for animals was obvious. He enthused to me about the 5 acre former apple orchard that he and his family took over 40 years ago and have since been managing for biodiversity. He has counted 60 species of bird on the property and regularly sees Short-beaked Echidna and Western Grey Kangaroos. The property shares a boundary with a 100 acre bushland reserve which is also rich in native wildlife.

Kent says that he routinely sees cats hunting on the block and his usual response is to chase them away, follow them to the boundary of his block and ensure that they have left the property. On the day that Kent shot the neighbour’s cat, he had already shooed away 4 cats – 2 with collars and 2 without. The cat he ended up shooting had already been chased off the property twice the same morning and Kent had been trying to trap it for 2 months without success. It wasn’t wearing a collar.

He’d previously asked his neighbours to keep their cat contained within their own property; a request that was either repeatedly ignored or with which the cat’s owners found it impossible to comply. After repeated attempts to trap the itinerant cat and shoo it off his block only to have it return a short while later, Kent took the, by his own admission, rash decision to shoot it. He’s a licensed and experienced shooter and firearm owner. He discharged a legally registered rifle on private property in full compliance with relevant laws, quickly and humanely killing the cat. He then buried it on his block.

If there is any animal cruelty evident in these actions I must have missed something. Hunters around the country perform similar actions around the country on a variety of animals and usually with a much lower standard demanded of the ethics and humanity of their actions. In this case, a single animal was humanely shot by a legally permitted and experienced practitioner in accordance with ethical guidelines for the humane destruction of pest animals set out by the RSPCA themselves here.

Neither can Kent’s actions since shooting the cat be impugned. When an owner inquired about the cat, Kent made no attempt to hide his actions and openly stated that he had shot the animal and buried it on his property. Without this single act of honesty none of these vindictive legal proceedings, and vindictive is precisely what they are, would have occurred. Pet cats which are allowed to roam freely beyond the confines of the owner’s property often go missing, the victim of snake or dog attack, falling down drains or ditches or getting bowled over by traffic. All of this is acknowledged in the RSPCA's own policies relating to pet cat containment and responsible ownership which can be found here. A less honest man could have chosen the path of least resistance and denied any knowledge of the pet’s whereabouts and that would have been the end of it.

And some media outlets have done their best to ensure that Mr Wilson’s honesty does not go unpunished. This includes making far too much space for neighbours’ baseless attacks on his character including claims that they are afraid of him or too scared to go near his property. This is a very serious innuendo and is utterly unfounded. It amounts to a suggestion that Mr Wilson actually intends physical harm to the cat’s owners should they approach him. This is slanderous, ridiculous and is not supported by the merest acquaintance with the facts of the case or Mr Wilson himself. He’s a long-serving volunteer member of the Country Fire Authority, the local scout group and a dedicated conservationist. He and his family have been well-known members of the local community for 40+ years. Any attempt to paint him as some sort of anti-social, animal-hating, gun-toting weirdo is transparent fabrication of the most laughable (and pernicious) kind. 

 

An Indoor Cat is a Safe & Healthy Cat

Which brings us to the most perplexing aspect of this story: why has the RSPCA pursued this case against Mr Wilson? The RSPCA is a federal organisation made up of representative societies in each state and territory with a combined annual budget in the vicinity of A$80,000,000. The organisation’s website states its vision is, “to be the leading authority in animal care and protection.” The same page states their mission as “to prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection.” That’s great. Fighting negligence and animal cruelty; promoting responsible pet ownership, care and animal health. I’m right behind all that. Come to mention it, so is Kent Wilson.

This is the most important point to come out of this case for me. The RSPCA is utterly confused; firstly about what constitutes animal cruelty and secondly about the expansiveness of its chosen, decidedly biblical, motto, “For All Creatures Great & Small.”  If this case is an accurate measure of how they prosecute their chosen duty, perhaps a better motto might be, “RSPCA: For Cats, Dogs & Livestock”.

Considering that the RSPCA relies on charitable donations for a large chunk of its bottom line, you might speculate that perhaps there is a lot more to be milked from the public purse through appealing to the emotion we attach to our companion animals than the cursory sympathy shown for the plight of native animals. That would quite neatly explain the apparent limiting of their concerns about animal cruelty, mostly to animals kept by humans rather than animals more broadly. But that’s pure speculation.

The RSPCA has prosecuted a member of the public for humanely killing an introduced predator; an act which spared countless native animals a less humane fate. In their simplistic ethical calculus it seems the RSPCA bestow human companion species with greater weight; which is fine if that’s their choice, but it should be reflected in their publicity material.

The fact that the animal in question was a neighbour’s pet is what Kent Wilson is really paying for – not cruelty. And if we’re to believe any of what the RSPCA claims to stand for, why is it not holding the cat’s owners to account? Their pet was unsupervised and roaming free outside the boundaries of their property. They left it vulnerable to predation by wild animals and free to prey upon threatened native species as well. In this case, irresponsible ownership also brought their pet into the rifle sights of a neighbour who should be as free to have the native wildlife on his property untrammelled by cats as his neighbours are to own them. According to the RSPCA, the onus is on the animal’s owners to restrict them, for their own safety and health, to their own property. Why then, is it not the RSPCA’s duty to enforce this?

This case throws up numerous questions that the RSPCA could be putting to local councils and state and federal politicians rather than harassing individuals with vexatious legal action. There are many questions which are relevant to their stated aims that they seem to be acting counter to:

Why aren’t cat owners legally bound to contain their pets?

In a few places they are – how can these laws be better enforced?

Why are we wasting resources wrongly targeting a private citizen when the Victorian duck shooting season persisted despite all scientific advice that it is inhumane and unsustainable?

Why aren't feral cats, considering the massive threat they pose to native animals, a major issue being investigated and publicised by RSPCA?

Rather than vilifying a man who hastily, perhaps even rashly (but humanely) took action to protect native wildlife, the RSPCA’s considerable public profile and financial clout should be put to the task of helping cat owners across the country to understand one simple truth: an indoor cat, is a safe and healthy cat. At the moment, the propagation of that crucial message is being left to other organisations like the Discovery Circle at UniSA, Land for Wildlife and Arid Recovery.

If the RSPCA really is for all creatures great and small, then our record for mammal extinction alone, and the extent to which stray and feral cats are responsible for that, show them to be derelict in their duty.

 

Support Kent

Kent Wilson has not shied away from accepting the consequences of his actions in this case. He has been unfairly penalised for the negligence of others. I don’t think he has done anything wrong.

A fund has been set up to ensure that Kent Wilson is not out-of-pocket as a result of these legal proceedings. Your donations and support are gratefully received not only to offset Mr Wilson’s legal expenses, but as a show of support for a citizen who has been erroneously singled-out by an organisation which is hoping to deflect attention from the shortcomings of its own policies by attempting to make an example of him.

DONATE HERE

(Excess money raised will be donated to Arid Recovery in South Australia who do a lot of research around feral cat ecology and threatened species recovery.)

 

A place for everything and everything in its place. A Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis, in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo used with kind permission Samantha Hopley.

Postscript

I’m regularly accused of hating cats and have already worn a great deal of abuse from this article and my opinions expressed elsewhere. I shudder to think what Kent and his family have had to endure. I’m a well-known animal lover. I love cats too. I can even find them cute in the right circumstances, but I mostly get excited about wild animals. I have stalked Puma in the cloud-forests of Ecuador and the Andean foothills in Chile. I’ve trudged Bornean rainforest at night hoping for a glimpse of Sunda Clouded Leopard and was delighted to come away with an encounter with a Leopard Cat instead. I’ve almost gone cross-eyed and been eaten alive by midges while scouring the Scottish highlands for the increasingly rare Scottish Wildcat. Any accusation that I hate cats is simply false. I recognise, however, that owning such a beautifully evolved predator as a domestic pet carries a very serious responsibility which I don’t think is taken seriously enough in Australia.

I cannot abide any cruelty toward, or mistreatment of, animals. As a professional scientist, I’ve been employed on cat-control programs many times in the past and have euthanased countless animals. This is always done humanely, in keeping with strict ethical guidelines and under regularly updated permits. It’s very important not to conflate these actions with cruelty or hatred. I don’t enjoy killing any animals, but when it has to be done it should be done humanely.

Numerous species of cats are seriously endangered around the world. If you have time and energy to spend defending cats, seek out the charitable organisations listed below which are working to protect and study these vanishing species and they will welcome whatever help you are able to offer. Please don’t waste your time abusing me (or others) for supporting evidence-based responses to our own ecological crises here in Australia or trying to convince me that there is a place in our landscape for feral cats or that your house cat doesn’t do any damage. All the evidence says you are probably wrong.

This is an emotionally-charged subject but it doesn’t have to be. Cat-lovers and conservationists simply need to recognise that we are on the same side. We are all against animal cruelty and support the protection of our native animals as well. The simple message that we all need to get behind is: an indoor cat is a safe and healthy cat.

 

Learn more about endangered cats...

The Snow Leopard Trust

Cheetah Conservation Fund

Felidae Conservation Fund

Clouded Leopard Project

Amur Leopard & Tiger Alliance

Panthera.org

Save Tigers Now

Sand Cat - Saharan Conservation Fund

The Cape Leopard Trust

Scottish Wildcats

Mountain Lion Foundation

The Orange-bellied Parrot: extinction, taxes and conservation realpolitik

Opinion, Current Affairs, BirdingChris Watson

Orange-bellied Parrots at Werribee in 2015. Perhaps as much as 10% of the wild population in a single (crummy) photograph.

“Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” – US Vice President Joe Biden.

 

Heading down the Geelong road the other day it was impossible not to think of the Orange-bellied Parrots. I write the Orange-bellied Parrots, not in the sense of the species as a whole, but in the sense of those specific Orange-bellied Parrots there. This is virtually what it has come to. Driving past the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) at Werribee I could be fairly confident that we were passing within just a few kilometres of some of the only individuals of their species that had been seen on the mainland this year. Maybe two birds; three on a good day*. This from a remaining wild population of 50 birds; or maybe even half that. Estimates vary.

This will not be news to birdwatchers. The precarious dance with oblivion that Neophema chrysogaster has been stepping for the last few decades is well-documented and widely-known in birdwatching and scientific circles. For the last few years the Gang-of-Four at Werribee (two colour-banded pairs) have been the only regular sightings of the species during the annual surveys conducted across their potential wintering range and among very few mainland sightings overall. My information this year is that the gang has dwindled by at least one of its female members who was observed being taken by a goshawk during the summer season at Tasmania.

What occurred to me as we zipped down the Geelong Road was: how many of the tens of thousands of other folks using the same road that day, and every other day, knew about these birds and, if they did, who among them cared?

It might sound a bit wishy-washy but it’s an important question. We can talk and write about conservation and how special our animals are ad infinitum, but it doesn't mean a thing if we aren't getting the rubber on the road; we need to take effective action or it's all so much hot air. This was driven home to me recently by a superb article by Australian ecologist Dale Nimmo et al on The Conversation. That article presented the plain facts about the widespread changes and degradation assailing Australian ecosystems and native animal populations. Frogs, birds and mammals; forests, reefs and savannah are all struggling.

That article introduced me to the stellar quotation from Joe Biden which I’ve pinched for the top of this post, “…show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” The stark truth of that statement is inescapable. So what do we value? Considered in the context of Australian government spending, it illuminates a nation whose values are wildly out-of-touch with reality.

The Gang of Four at a distance in 2015 over the shoulder of Steve Davidson, a long-time leader of OBP winter surveys in Victoria.

The Orange-bellied Parrot is vanishing before our eyes on the doorstep of one of our largest cities. A large portion of our remaining small and medium-sized mammals are on a similar trajectory. There are swathes of Australia’s remote interior that remain poorly-sampled and numerous species that are virtually unknown. The Great Barrier Reef is knackered. Our forests are riddled with dieback. The last of our south-eastern tall, wet forests are still under threat from an antiquated and unprofitable logging industry. Dangerous and barren legacy mines dot The Outback, uninhabitable and toxic. The scars left behind by unsuccessful mineral exploration criss-cross even the remotest regions of the continent's interior. They are rehabilitated in the most perfunctory manner permitted by law and left to testify to our rampant disregard for the natural heritage to which we are all heirs. Most of our frogs aren’t having a good time. The oceans are increasingly full of plastic and empty of fish. The entire continent is awash with feral cats, foxes, camels, horses, donkeys, fish, goats, pigs, deer, rabbits, ants, toads... and then there are the weeds. Changed fire regimes often shadow the spread of weeds laying waste to further remnant habitat and wildlife refugia. We’ve already cleared a fair whack of the native vegetation anywhere that might be good for a farm and there are many out there who don’t seem to grasp the folly of proceeding to clear the rest. Both of Victoria’s faunal emblems (Leadbeater’s Possum and Helmeted Honeyeater) are classified as Critically Endangered. There’s only one classification worse than that. And on top of all this we’re entering an increasingly unstable and erratic climatic future characterised by changes in temperature and rainfall that are already proving too rapid for some species to successfully adapt to.

Faced with all of this, as Dale’s article concludes, it is difficult not to question exactly how urgently we need to spend $50 billion on submarines when expenditure of just a few hundred million dollars could mitigate or eliminate many of the problems listed above. Do we really need to cut $54 billion from public health spending in order to provide tax cuts (coincidentally totalling a very similar figure) to the wealthiest individuals and overseas business owners?

When did Australian democracy jump the shark?

Our leaders wring their hands and furrow their brows with earnest sincerity while explaining, apparently without an ounce of irony, that the savings must come from the smallest funding pools: human services, health, science, education, the environment. The burden of funding cuts must be shouldered by the most vulnerable and least represented in our society. Never mind that just a handful of our wealthiest individuals, chipping in just a fraction of their combined wealth, could fund everything we could ever need and not notice the slightest difference in their standard of living. This while the Australian Taxation Office seems to be legally incapable of ensuring that the businesses and individuals who accrue the most wealth from Australian resources pay proportional taxes on that wealth, while simultaneously falling over themselves to hound lower income earners and hold them to account for their pittance.

It’s not even the stuff of conspiracy theory to suggest that our government is now led by a corporate class which serves any interest but the national interest. This much is observable. At best, we now live in a thinly veiled oligarchy; the cynic in me might suggest outright kleptocracy.

This is only occasionally contested, half-heartedly, by those in Parliament House and nobody with the capacity to think for themselves would believe them. It isn’t happenstance that some individuals at the top of Australian politics rank among the wealthier in Australia, and have friends and associates among the wealthiest. Neither should it be a surprise that they might collude and go out of their way to preserve the status quo.

The same people who helplessly hold up their hands when exposed for exploiting loopholes that allow them to needlessly consolidate their already obscene economic advantage, are the same people who are uniquely placed to close those loopholes and render the system more equitable.

On top of saving billions on unnecessary submarines and corporate giveaways, we might not have to look too far to find funds that could return to government coffers if they simply decided to make it so.

Stop imprisoning innocent people. Tax the church. Legalise marijuana. Tax wealth.

These ideas are simply expressed here but I acknowledge they would not necessarily be simple to put into effect. These are concepts that have been spoken about and debated at length for decades and their time has well and truly come. Are they really that revolutionary? Is it objectionable to demand a government that takes clear action toward building an equitable society that looks after the weak rather than endlessly reinforcing privilege among a tiny few? Is it pie-in-the-sky to expect our leaders to engage honestly and intelligently with experts and harness their learning to develop the best practices to benefit society? Is that unreasonable? Is anyone really so dull that they’re content to entertain the prospect of living in a barren post-mining landscape, drained of its mineral wealth, ravaged by climate change and depauperate of its unique fauna?

Anyone with rudimentary arithmetic skills (or the faintest shred of human decency) can tell you that our current refugee and immigration system is a millstone around the nation’s neck that serves entirely political, rather than practical or humanitarian, ends. Aside from being completely ineffective, it is costly; and cruel. Why are we so intent on displaying this barbarous side of our nature to the world? If we simply stop imprisoning and brutalising the most vulnerable people on Earth, we’ll save a truckload of cash and we can all feel better; win/win.

Next, tax the church. I’m not religious myself but I don’t mind if other people are. We shouldn’t care what people believe – we should care about what they do. Religious institutions rank among some of the wealthiest businesses on the planet, they offer a “service” which is faulty at best and plainly fraudulent at worst and religious observance has been dropping steadily for decades. Their continuing tax-exempt status is a farce which demeans and burdens us all. The first counterclaim to this proposition is usually to point out the variety of charitable and social services that various religious organisations provide which would otherwise need to be picked up by the government. But this is easily dismissed by a simple calculation of the amount of extra tax revenue we’d have to lavish on those services if religious tax exemption were revoked. The religious are always happy to point out the moral and charitable aspects of the organisations they support while sweeping their large catalogue of misdeeds under the carpet. If they’re genuinely keen on helping their fellow humans, they should be stepping forward to welcome taxable status with open arms and ululations of divine joy. They should be happy to do their bit and we should afford them the opportunity to do so.

To these measures you could add: rational defence spending based on realistic strategic assessments rather than hyper-politicised scare campaigns; a rebuilt corporate tax system to stop large businesses heading offshore with billions of dollars owed to Australian tax-payers; social welfare payments that equal a living wage; an end to the negative gearing nonsense; an increased minimum wage and a rebuilt personal income tax system which taxes wealth rather than income.

Implementing even a couple of those measures would have the nation so flush with cash that finding the paltry $10 million per year estimated to be sufficient to prevent the extinction of ALL Australian bird species, would be a matter for petty cash.

Our leaders have all benefitted from our (previously) free education system. They have grown up among the riches of our (seriously imperilled) natural heritage. Many of them have parents who were (welcomed as) refugees and some of them are immigrants themselves. They should be ensuring the same freedoms are available for generations to come, not dismantling each of them systematically.

I don’t even know what any of this has to do with parrots anymore. I guess I’ve had a creeping feeling for a long time that throughout the span of my life the government has been steadily extricating itself from responsibility for the environment. The Earth is just one giant ecosystem and one upon whose function we, and our economy, rely upon for our continued existence. Increasingly, conservation, and the broad base of scientific endeavour that underpins it, is left to not-for-profit NGOs: Birdlife Australia, Landcare, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Zoos Victoria, Bush Heritage Australia, Greening Australia and countless others. Our national parks have had their funding and staffing progressively slashed to the extent that some reserves are virtually un-managed and many others run on a skeleton crew of rangers who function more as groundskeepers and maintenance crews than natural resource managers or wildlife ecologists.

There’s an election coming and I just hope that the shark which Australian democracy jumped some time ago can be returned to the open sea without fear of culling and we can forget the entire ghastly episode.

Sometimes you jump the shark... sometimes the shark jumps you.

Make your vote count. I can’t, and shouldn’t, tell you who to vote for and neither should anybody else, but I implore you to look hard and make your vote do something surprising and good. Buck the beige status quo. Look for people with less to gain financially from remaining in power. Look for people who don’t offer simple answers to complex problems. Look for people who admit uncertainty. Look for people with character and a background that takes in adversity as well as privilege. Vote for someone who’ll fund science, the arts and maybe even support a Great Forest National Park (protecting at least one of our faunal emblems would be a good start wouldn’t it?) Vote for someone, ANYONE, with a background in science, rather than the endless stream of bankers and lawyers we seem so fond of hoisting to high office. Such people are likely to do a better job of governing than the conga-line of wealthy old men with the laughably obvious commercial interest in public office that we are repeatedly lumped with.

But back to parrots...

A fellow parrot-lover, and a much better thinker and writer than me, Douglas Adams, summed up the travesty of our overuse and destruction of the Earth’s resources when he addressed the University of California, Santa Barbara only a month before his death in 2001. The full talk is highly recommended and can be found here but, in part, Douglas said:

“… there is a kind of terrible irony that at the point that we are best able to understand, and appreciate, and value the richness of life around us, we are destroying it at a higher rate than it has ever been destroyed before. And we are losing species after species after species, day after day, just because we’re burning the stuff down for firewood. And this is a kind of terrible indictment of our understanding.”

Orange-bellied Parrots on their wintering grounds in coastal Melbourne**. It's a very distant picture but I'm just glad to know they're out there.

Extinction, like death, is a crucial and inescapable component of life on Earth. Things will continue to go extinct, and not all extinctions will be caused by human malfeasance. But, if a parrot is going to go extinct on our watch, it should be because an annual trans-Bass Strait migration is an unsustainable evolutionary strategy, not because… jobs.

 

*In the interests of accuracy: OBP sightings on the mainland are, very sensibly, not publicised. So there may have been some outlying reports that I’m unaware of. We can only hope. This is an illustrative anecdote.

**I'm grateful to Steve Davidson for showing me some Orange-bellied Parrots on a cold and dreary day, about a year ago this month. Hopefully the gang's recruitment starts to improve and gains in size in coming years.