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Wamsley’s War (2000)

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Cat hat education content clip 1

This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

John Wamsley describes how he was able to get major press coverage for his cause by wearing a hat made of feral cat skins. He says that if you want to attract attention you need a gimmick.

Curator’s notes

Simple but effective use of a to-camera interview intercut with stock footage

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows John Wamsley, founder of Earth Sanctuaries, talking about his controversial hat made from feral cat skins, and how the hat was instrumental in his campaign to make it legal for operators of wildlife sanctuaries to destroy cats found on their property. Archival footage shows Wamsley at an official function, where his hat attracts some startled reactions from onlookers. In a piece to camera he suggests that it is possible to change a law by 'making a nuisance of yourself’.

Educational value points

  • Dr John Wamsley, a campaigner against the destruction caused by feral cats, is the founder of a number of privately run wildlife sanctuaries. Wamsley grew up in the bush and says he witnessed first-hand the devastating effects of cats and foxes on the environment. He regards cats as the 'number one’ threat to Australian wildlife, although his critics believe he underplays the legacy of human activities, such as land clearing, farming and mining, on biodiversity.
  • Wamsley’s hat is made from the skin, or pelt, of a feral cat. Wamsley became known as the 'man in the cat hat’ after he wore this hat at the 1991 South Australian Tourism Awards to receive an award for his Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary. The stunt made the front pages of most Australian newspapers and even received international coverage. It also helped raise awareness about the threat that cats pose to the environment and led to a change in state and federal laws to allow feral cat control in parks, reserves and sanctuaries across Australia.
  • Feral cats are found in most habitats across Australia, with the feral cat population estimated at 3–6 million. 'Feral’ refers to wild populations of previously domestic species. Cats were introduced to Australia by European settlers, who took their domestic cats with them as they settled the country. By the 1850s feral cat colonies had become established. Intentional releases were also made in the late 1800s in the hope that cats would control rabbits, rats and mice.
  • The clip refers to the problem posed by feral cats, which have caused some species, particularly ground-dwelling birds, reptiles and mammals, to become extinct or endangered. Researchers believe that on average each feral cat kills 1,000 small-to-medium animals each year. A domestic cat kills about 32 animals per year. Cats have also introduced diseases that have killed indigenous wildlife.
  • Feral species can undermine the environment. In Australia rabbits, cats, goats, pigs and a number of other domesticated animals that have few natural predators and high reproductive rates have successfully established feral populations. They present an ongoing threat to indigenous species through hunting, competition for food and shelter, destruction of habitat and spreading disease. Some feral animals trample and graze on vegetation that provides food and shelter for native animals. They can also cause soil erosion.
  • Feral cats have no natural predators in Australia, are wary of traps, do not readily take baits and avoid humans. There is currently no effective, humane, large-scale technique to control their population. The presence of unneutered domestic cats under poor supervision also hampers their control. Even when cats are eradicated from an area, they quickly recolonise it.
  • In Australia at present, attempts to control feral cat numbers include shooting, poisoning and trapping. Some animal rights groups believe these methods can be inhumane and point out that in many states feral animals are excluded from the state and territory Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Acts, so that if a person kills a feral animal 'in a manner that causes unnecessary pain’ they are not liable for prosecution.
  • The clip makes reference to wildlife sanctuaries. By 2000 Wamsley had established 11 sanctuaries under the name 'Earth Sanctuaries’. He aimed to regenerate some of Australia’s original ecosystems by enclosing vast tracts of land, eliminating introduced species and reintroducing original plants and animals. However, critics argued that these were giant zoos and that the best way to protect biodiversity is to conserve whole ecosystems. In 2004 Wamsley was forced to sell his shares in Earth Sanctuaries after a failed bid to list the company on the stock exchange.

An interview with John Wamsley.

John Wamsley In Australia 10 years ago it was absolutely illegal for me to destroy a feral cat on our sanctuary destroying our native wildlife. So I had to change the law. And the way I do these things is a bit different to most because I like to do things so they work instead of talking about them.

He puts a skinned cat on his head.

John Wamsley And that’s when I wore this cat hat for which I’m now reasonably famous, I guess.

Images of John wearing his hat at a public function.

Narrator Meet the unstoppable man – driven by the compulsive idea. Ten years ago this man blasted out at the law which protected this cat, and the cat lost.

John Wamsley And it absolutely shocked everybody. It hit the front page of every newspaper in Australia and now we’re allowed to destroy any cat, even with a collar on it, in our sanctuaries, killing our wildlife. So that if you want to change the law, you can do it. Just don’t do it calmly, get up there, make a nuisance of yourself and politicians will give in.

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