Do attitudes to feral cats reflect our core values?

Adrian Franklinis, a professor of sociology at the University of Tasmania, has written extensively on ‘animal issues’ and he recently commented on that country’s radical attitude towards feral cats. According to him, “Australia’s fear of the rogue animal reflects our migrant paranoia” (National Times, January 8, 2013). He argues that “intolerance of outsiders is entrenched as a common value in Australia.”

The intolerance shown towards migrants and asylum seekers extends to non-human animals too, particularly the feral cat. Feral cats are despised and considered to be ‘un-Australian.’ Franklin questions why they (Australians) are so against the feral cat when other countries are not? He attributes to their apparent fear of outsider humans. Although the reason given by scientists is that the feral cat endangers native animals, Franklin contests this assumption.

He compares attitudes to those in the UK, which has a far denser population of feral cats than Australia, and where people are just as concerned about native animals. Yet, in Britain, the feral cat is a cause for concern prompting people to care about their welfare! It is as protected as domestic cats, and is more or less naturalised. Franklin ponders why feral cats so loathed and feared if there is no conclusive scientific evidence to prove that they pose a danger to Australian wildlife. For him, the answer relates to “the differences between Australia and Britain as nations and how the feral cat has come to embody very different core values in each place” (Franklin, 2013).

In Britain (a long-established nation), feral cats trigger a sense of pity and charity – they embody the figure of the destitute and deserving poor, someone who must be looked after. By comparison, in Australia (a new country), “the feral cat has become a useful natural anomaly for those who want to uphold a state of anxiety about belonging and not belonging.” He continues: “the feral cat looks perilously like a metaphor for the universal unwanted asylum seeker and migrant – they are creatures that cross boundaries of their own volition; independent, outsider figures accused of threatening a properly Australian ‘natural’ order. They threaten to fragment that fragile and threatened reality: ”Australia”. This is a social fear being played out in a powerful way, through a discredited ecological myth. That the scientific evidence has exonerated feral cats is not the point. It is not about what they do but what they have come to represent that matters here. Hating the cat and performing acts of control and eradication maintains the idea of an Australia threatened from outside and creates a form of solidarity among insiders and on-siders who must remain vigilant.”