Cats: Cute camping buddies or marauding maulers?

After the week that was—where the issue of travelling with pets reached pantomime proportions, with the creepy video of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard apologising for smuggling their pooches into Australia—we chanced upon a website dedicated entirely to camping with cats, and the two contrasting stories combined to spark an interesting debate: should cats and other domestic animals have the right to roam?

Based in Nashville, Tennessee, the appropriately named Camping With Cats WTF website has associated instagram account, twitter feed and blogspot, with content all about sleeping under canvass with cats. ‘These naturally adventurous creatures deserve to feel the dirt beneath their paws, the heat from a campfire, and smell the musty awesomeness that is a worn-in tent,’ claims the site, bringing home their point with images of moggies in backpacks, tents and around fires, looking like the cats who got the cream.

Camping cat. Image sourced from Camping with Cats WTF instagram
Camping cats. Images sourced from Camping with Cats WTF instagram

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There are several such sites for dog-owners who like to take their animals adventuring, but this is the first we’ve seen dedicated to cats. It’s a concept that would have law-makers in Australia coughing up hairballs, however, because Downunder (where even dogs are banned from national parks) it’s illegal to let your cat roam the street after dark in many places, let alone take them overnight hiking in the woods. In fact, some suburban streets are full cat containment areas, where owners are required to keep their felines inside 24/7, or to have them on a leash when outside.

Between this and the frankly disturbing Depp video, Australia starts to sound something of a dictatorship for domestic animals (and their owners), but in truth, their seemingly draconian laws are based on sobering evidence: feral animals (including cats and dogs) are responsible for massacring millions of native animals every night, including some rare and threatened species. Free-ranging domestic cats contribute significantly to this problem, either by breeding with the feral beasts or going on killing sprees of their own.

Cat containment areas, which caused a media outcry when first introduced, are only found in areas directly bordering reserves where threatened species are known to survive, and their introduction was supported by organisations including the RSPCA (although some vets cautioned that keeping cats confined for long periods can create behavioural problems in the animals—so people living in such areas are urged to think through their choice of pet carefully).

Cats can, of course, make affectionate pets (and, apparently, camping mates, although the jury is still out on that one—we suspect their claws might make mincemeat of tent fabric and inflatable sleeping mats), but when they are imported in relatively large numbers into an ecosystem such as Australia, where wildlife has been historically isolated for millennia, their predatory instincts can cause havoc.

Indigenous species such as potoroos are being forced right up against the ropes of extinction by introduced carnivores including cats. Others, such as quokkas, have been virtually eradicated from the mainland by the same threats, and now survive mostly on islands. And some species are gone altogether. The problem is so acute, that Australia recently appointed its first Threatened Species Commissioner, a job being done by Gregory Andrews.

Last year the Australian government invoked the wrath of many animal lovers, including cat-cuddling celebs such as Morrissey and Bridget Bardot, by announcing it would cull 2 million feral cats by 2020. In response to the outcry, Andrews penned an open letter to Bardot, pointing out that scientists estimate Australia is home to about 20 million feral cats, which each kill an average of five animals—ranging from bugs and lizards to small mammals and birds—every single night, meaning Australian wildlife is enduring one of the highest extinction rates in the world.

‘We are home to more than 500,000 species, most of which are found nowhere else in the world,’ wrote Andrews. ‘Our animals and plants define us as a nation, so when we lose them, we’ve lost a part of who we are as a country… We have lost 29 unique Australian mammal species over the last 200 years. This represents 35 percent of the world’s modern mammal extinctions and is the highest rate of mammal extinctions in the world.’

Suffice to say, we don’t thing Mr Andrews will be following Camping With Cats WTF instagram account any time soon, but most people who enjoy seeing wildlife in its natural habitat will appreciate that he makes a compelling case. Culling cats is never going to be a popular policy, but no wants to see entire species disappearing from the wild either. And in regards to domestic animals, most animal-welfare focussed organisations urge owners to take responsibility for their cats by having them de-sexed, micro-chipped and making sure they’re well-fed.

But the biggest tip pet owners can take from all this is—don’t so much as think about trying to sneak your hairy BFF into Australia—even if you’re a world-famous actor with your own plane—because it will only end in tears and cringe-inducing show-trial vids.