I like cats. I also like wildlife. Too often cat-owners are demonised by wildlife groups as being irresponsible, but you can have your cats and still be surrounded by native birds and small animals.
When Roger and I moved from the Snowy Mountains to Canberra back in 2001, we had two cats. Albie and Woodstock were country cats. They’d roamed the paddocks happily, caught rabbits and the odd bird and on one memorable occasion a one-metre brown snake that resulted in a rushed trip to the vet. Every year a family of swallows would nest in the rafters on the verandah, and every year, right on cue, Albie, a semi-feral tabby, would eat one of the parent birds (only one, mind you). Woodstock caught himself a magpie when he was about six months old and proudly carried the squawking bird around the yard while every other magpie in the Snowy Mountains dive-bombed him. We had to chase him round the house until we could catch him, prise his little jaws apart and free the unharmed but very pissed-off bird.
I’d always had misgivings about the cats free-ranging and the move to the city reinforced my opinion that keeping the cats confined was better for them and better for the local wildlife.
We rented a house in Belconnen and with the approval of the owner we erected a large Weldmesh enclosure and attached it to the outside back wall of the house. We nicknamed it The Catatorium and Woody and Albie had access to and from it via the window of the back room. We 'furnished' it with ladders and shelves and scratching posts and the like. Cats are highly adaptable animals and once they’d familiarised themselves with their new habitat and established their new boundaries they settled in quite happily.
Ernest Hemingway, owner of multiple cats, once said, “one cat just leads to another.” This said, when, 10 years later, we finally moved back to the country, our cat family had grown to four. The Catatorium was dismantled and came with us to be re-erected at the side of the yurt. The cats (now six of them … Hemingway was right!) have access to it via a trapdoor in the bookshelf and a custom-built tunnel elevated off the back deck. It’s all very Hogwarts as they appear and disappear through the bookshelf (pictured, left).
Different cats have different approaches to the outdoor facility. Midgley, for example, likes to be outside in all weather and is quite happy perched up high watching the clouds go by. At the other end of spectrum, Topaz regards the great outdoors as big and scary and entirely unnecessary as everything she needs is inside. The others use the Catatorium as they wish, day and night, and no one seems to want to go further.
Occasionally a suicidal wren or finch will get through the mesh and depending on which mog is in residence, it often does not end well for the bird, but such occurrences are rare. A baby red-belly black snake got in there once and Tosca thoughtfully brought it inside the house to show us. After that we put a fine mesh wire around the bottom the enclosure. Generally, however, the wildlife remains safe and the cats avoid harm from snakes.
The swallows nest under the eaves of the house; robins, wrens, finches and bowerbirds come and go; bluetongues, skinks and water dragons laze around on rocks in the garden; frogs inhabit the dam and creek - with no more predation than that which normally occurs in nature. Which, of course, it what keeps it all in balance.
While my Catatorium is pretty basic, my friend, Jen, has constructed a full-on playground, The Catio, for her five cats using bird netting, sturdy branches and marine ropes (pictured right and below left). There are also commercial cat enclosures that can be built to order or you can buy the components and build it yourself. One of the best I’ve seen was where the cats exited the house via a cat door above a window and entered a tunnel that ran right around the house under the eaves, with two or three different enclosures coming off the tunnel. That one was in Canberra, and the owners built it after the 2003 bushfires when they’d lost a cat because they couldn’t find it when they had to evacuate. They didn’t lose their house, but the cat was never found.
Of course, a lot of farmers like to keep cats in barns to keep the rodent population under control. That’s fine if you’ve got stored grain or stockfeed that attracts rodents. If however, liked me, you don’t keep stored feed and therefore don’t have a rodent problem, keeping cats and wildlife safe is not difficult.