Cat-lovers look away now. Land management and wildlife conservation groups have been increasingly concerned about the escalating feral cat population, particularly in northern Australia, where wild cats have few predators and vast swathes of unpopulated territory to scour for food.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) estimates there are 15 million feral cats in Australia, with each killing an average five animals a night.
These figures are conservative and already two years out of date. Consider this: an average cat has one to eight kittens per litter and up to three litters per year. A single pair of cats and their kittens can produce as many as 420,000 kittens in just seven years.
Whatever the numbers, they are truly, as Grand Designs host Kevin McLeod might say – “vast”. So far the control of feral cats has fallen to commercial hunters and rangers (using humane traps and rifles), trapping and monitoring and baiting programs. The Federal Government has in recent years been trialling a new feral cat bait ironically dubbed Curiosity, specially formulated to cull feral cats and minimise the incidental deaths of other natives species. It is hoped the new poison will replace Eradicat (1080-based bait).
Yes, yes, I know – this is reminding you of a Little River Band song, (‘Curiosity killed the cat.’) I dimly recall interviewing John Farnham for a student newspaper and asking if he was going to perform the song that night. Farnham, who was lead singer with LRB from 1982 to 1986, admitted he had not yet learned the song. That’s a fair digression from the original subject, although now you’ve got the bloody tune stuck in your head, right?
Curiosity ® was the subject of a 2013 trial at Roxby Downs in South Australia, to trap feral cats in a trial area and monitor their survival using radio transmitting collars before and after baiting. Native wildlife species were monitored to determine whether or not the baits led to a decline in population size at the site. Here are the results.
In 2014 Environment Minister Greg Hunt appointed Gregory Andrews as Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner. The Commissioner’s role is to develop priority actions to prevent extinctions and halt the decline of Australia’s most threatened species. The Commissioner will oversee the next stage of Curiosity, which Mr Hunt said was showing promise as ‘an effective and humane approach to the problem.’
Curiosity comprises a meat-based sausage containing a small hard plastic pellet filled with toxin. Feral cats do not chew their food so will reliably swallow portions of the sausage including the pellet. Most native animals nibble and chew their food so will reject the pellet.
“The Curiosity bait for feral cats uses a new toxin called para-aminopropiophenone, or PAPP, which is considered best-practice world-wide and is analogous to putting the animal into a sleep from which they do not wake up,” Mr Hunt said.
Feral cats, which are notoriously difficult to trap and appear to be less interested in baits than live prey, have forced 20 species into extinction and are putting 124 others under threat.
In July RMIT University began a research project into the extent of feral cat control across Australia and to estimate the number of cats removed from the environment each year.
Research director Richard Faulkner told FOMM the aim of the survey is to see how (as a nation) we are measuring up against the Threatened Species commissioner’s strategy/target – a cull of two million by 2020. Mr Faulkner was surprised by the strong participation rate.
“When we launched the survey six weeks ago we were not sure how it would go. We anticipated that 500 participants would be good – we are now at 3,400 and counting!”
The national survey aims to gather responses from rural and remote regions of Australia as well as suburban areas.
In 2014, Greg Hunt, confronted with damning evidence from the CSIRO, called for an eradication program including development of a biological control. The CSIRO study found that mammal extinctions were 40% higher than previously estimated and feral cats ranked higher than climate change as the primary cause.
While advocating measures including “island arks” and biological controls, Hunt warned that the latter could be worse than the problem if not properly controlled.
The ‘island ark’ concept – where pests are removed from a fenced reserve or island which is then re-stocked with endangered species – has worked well in New Zealand. Predators including cats, possums, rodents and mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels), were removed from Tiritiri Matangi and Kapiti Island, both now havens for native birds (and bird watchers).
Meanwhile the vast northern Australian landscape has become a happy hunting ground for feral cats. Arnhem Land covers 97,000 square kilometres and has a human population of 16,000 or so. If you discount the probably rare moments when a feral cat goes down to a river to drink and becomes croc food, cats are free to roam and multiply.
Some of the newer baiting proposals include ecologist John Read’s “grooming trap” which sprays toxic gel on the cat (which licks it off when grooming).
There is also a project dubbed ‘Toxic Trojans’ using live prey to attract and kill cats.
There are arguments against biological controls, baiting and trap-alter-and-release programs and you will find most of them outlined here by animal rights group PETA.
Some of Australia’s feral cats are domestic moggies gone astray, but they are not the dingo-sized beasts seen in Arnhem Land and the western deserts. Many of Australia’s feral cats are believed to be descendants of those brought by Dutch explorers as early as the 1600s.
“Most of the cats we’re talking about are really wild animals that don’t engage with humans,” Richard Faulkner says.
Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) manages more feral cat and fox-free areas on mainland Australia than any other organisation. The largest areas are Scotia in western NSW (a feral predator-free area of 8,000 hectares) and Mt Gibson in WA (7800ha). Larger still, Newhaven (65,000ha in the Northern Territory), is under construction.
My contribution to this subject was a dark song written after a few weeks travelling in the NT outback where we saw a feral cat cross the Stuart Highway in the middle of the day. His was an arrogant, purposeful trot, as if this cat knew its scant risks of being killed were limited to sparse road traffic and wedge-tailed eagles (the latter probably more at risk of being run over as they scavenge road-kill).
Sometimes at night, when I’m taking the wheelie bin up to the road (trying to beat my PB), I hear a tinkling bell. This would probably be the neighbourhood cat, alerting night critters to its whereabouts by a bell attached to its collar. Good move that, and it makes puss easier to find when the owners want to lock her away for the night.
“So keep your cats locked up at night while you’re sleeping,
Make sure they wear a bell,
Out in the desert they’re quietly creeping, just how many it’s hard to tell;
In Arnhem Land we sit around the campfire, singing the Feral Cat Blues,
While descendants of our long-lost cats make the cover of the NT News,
The cover of the NT News.”