30th May - Cats

The realisation that it was completely illegal to kill a feral cat in South Australia hit us all like a bomb. How could we save our wildlife if we couldn’t destroy feral cats? Now that Animal Liberation was watching us, it would be difficult to carry on without ultimately being caught.

Although it is hard to understand how anyone who claimed to love Australia could let their cat run loose, if one looked at the penalties being handed out to anyone who killed someone’s cat, it was reasonable to assume that most judges were cat lovers.

There is ample documentation of the damage cats do to the Australian environment. It wasn’t our job to educate Australians on how to be Australian. It was our job to create safe areas for our wildlife to live. To do this we had to destroy cats. We would have to change the law.

Adam O’Neil had given me the skin of a massive feral cat he had shot in the Flinders Ranges. It was now the night of the South Australian Tourism Awards. Proo had an idea. Why not wear the catskin as a hat? The idea was wonderful.


A short clip of John Wamsley and Proo Geddes at the SA Tourism Awards, 1991.

Courtesy Channel 2


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The look on peoples faces when I appeared that night with a dead cat on my head will never be forgotten. It made an extraordinary sight. Somehow it fitted so well. A photograph appeared on the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser. It made every major newspaper in Australia. It enraged Australia. It enraged the world. The education lesson had commenced. On the day it appeared on the front page of the Advertiser, the various Environment Ministers were meeting in Adelaide. Cats were suddenly on the agenda. The timing could not have been better.

I received hundreds of death threats. Animal Liberation ran a massive campaign to stop people from visiting our sanctuaries. The television discovered the cat-hat. It went round the world. The story grew more bizarre at each telling. It was soon joined with cat recipes, etc. Everyone wanted a cat-hat. Warrawong Sanctuary sold hundreds of them.

Yet with each telling a little could be said about the damage done by cats. Slowly, very slowly, the message began to get through. This was more than just a publicity stunt. This was serious conservation. Within a few years every state in Australia would pass legislation on cats. If Christine Pearson had known what her visit to Yookamurra Sanctuary would lead to she would surely have stayed home that day.

The demand for “cat hats” was enormous. We were offering $35 per tanned full cat skin. We were selling cat hats for $50 each. We could not get enough to meet the demand. We sold thousands. Our cat traps were selling nearly as well.

I even publicly talked of the concept of writing a cat recipe book. The public loved it. They just couldn’t get enough. All their lives they had submitted to the continual torment of their indecent neighbours letting their cats run amok. Now was a time for revenge.

There is no doubt, in my mind, that the biggest problem our wildlife faced is from domestic cat owners. Not because domestic cats destroy wildlife but because their owners destroy wildlife projects. Gradually, it all turned around. Cat owners even began to look a little embarrassed when they admitted they owned a cat. Some began to talk of “responsible cat ownership”.

The new law in South Australia was very clear. Any cat on a National Park or Sanctuary could be destroyed by an authorised person. We very quickly authorised all our personnel. The battle had been won for Earth Sanctuaries.

The real question is, why is it so hard? It doesn’t take much intelligence to realise that cats are killers. There seems to be a massive resistance to change no matter how important. This is probably important in the evolution of things. If something is successful, why change it?

In Australia today, it is illegal to kill wildlife. It is illegal to smuggle wildlife out of Australia. We have 10 customs agents working full-time on wildlife smuggling. They have stopped about 800 animals being smuggled out of Australia over the last ten years. This is the number that one cat would kill over ten years. Yet cats can do what they like.

If I threw rocks on my neighbours roof, I would be considered anti-social. Yet I can let my cat run in my neighbours yard, even though my neighbour does not wish it too, with impunity. What a terrible, aggressive thing to do. You have a neighbour who loves and feeds her birds and you let your cat enter her yard and destroy them.

At last there was someone they could talk to whom they trusted. I was to learn that there are two sorts of old ladies in this world. One has cats and loves her cats. The other feeds the birds and has been burying cats in her yard all her life. I suppose it balances out.

If cats are such good company, why are they always in someone else’s yard? If someone wants a cat and keeps it on their property then that is one thing. However, if they let them roam at will destroying wildlife then that is quite different.

We commenced a program based on flat cats. We meant it to refer to platypus. However, everyone assumed we meant flat cats. There is a group who called themselves the “flat cat people”. They sell “flat cat” odds and ends. I think they are actually pro cat. However, we would sell more “the only good cat is a flat cat” stickers than they would.

Wherever I went I was asked to tell the latest cat joke. There is no doubt that we got more mileage out of cats than we ever got out of wildlife. That is a measure of the problem. Why do Australians think so little of their wildlife?