Killing cats in Australia: Genocide or Saving Wildlife?
Media has widely reported that Australian government is planning to kill 2 million cats by 2020 (1). The reaction of cat lovers throughout the world was very negative. Cat lovers expressed their disapproval by creating online petitions. Actress Brigitte Bardot called it “cat genocide” (2). British singer Morrissey said that feral cats slaughtered by Australian government is an “idiocy” (3). However biologists and conservationists sided with the Australian government openly showed their support for the cat killings for sake of saving their native animals.
Are Australian government decisions based on science? Will killing of feral cats really save Australian animals? Why don’t they just neuter their feral cats? This review article will attempt to take a closer look at Australian cat realities.
Warning: this article contains images which some readers may find disturbing.
Which cats Australian government wants to kill?
Some media sources confused their readers by using images of Persians (4) and other cat breeds when talking about the Australian cat problem. The reality is, not these cats are Australian government’s target.
Australians are concerned about the feral cats.
What are feral cats? (5) Feral cats are not a wildcat, nor are they a hybrid or a breed of the cat. Feral cat is an unsocialized domestic cat (Felis Silvestris catus). Domestic cats become feral cats if they do not have contact with humans.
However young feral kittens, less than 3 months old, if socialized, will be no different than other domestic cats. Domestic cats, being only partially domesticated, can behave like wild animals or be good pets depending on the environment they grew in, and the amount of human contact they received (6).
Adult feral cats are afraid of humans and behave similar to wildcats. Feral cats usually cannot be good pets – nobody will want to adopt a cat which behaves aggressively towards humans.
Most of feral cats that end up in shelters will be killed (7). This is why welfare organizations believe that TNR (catching, neutering and leaving them to the wild) is the most humane way to deal with feral problem.
Why feral cats are the problem in Australia?
Domestic cats originated from the wildcats F. S Lybica found in Anatolian region (8). The human and cat relation is older than 12 thousand years ago (9). Cats are a part of ecosystem and native to Anatolia, Levant and other parts of Middle East. Cats in Anatolia were traditionally valued as companions. At first they lived besides humans in Neolithic villages. In current times the descendants of ancient wildcats began to live in city streets, gardens and some of them became pets. Since the beginning of cat domestication, cats continue to be an important part of Anatolian culture (10).
Domestic cats were brought only recently to Americas, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia by European migrants (11). In recent times, a large number of people from these countries own cats as pets. Cats are one of the most popular pets in these first world countries (12). Despite the popularity of cats as pets, these countries are particularly hostile to any cats living freely outside and not owned by humans (13). Unowned natural cats are seen as burden: it is believed that there are too many freely living cats and that they have negative effects on ecosystems.
The welfare model in the Western world is mainly about getting rid of freely living or feral cats: by killing them (in shelters) and neutering them. Australia uses even more extreme methods to deal with feral cats.
First we should understand how cats came to Australia.
Domestic cats were introduced to Australia by Europeans about 200 years ago (written records since 1820’s) (14). The genetic studies confirm that feral cats in Australia are indeed of European origin (15).
Australia is home to many unique animals and plants not found anywhere else in the world. Bilbies, bandicoots and quolls are one of these unique rat like mammals, called marsupials. Cats are suspected to be killers of these and many other small animals.
Many people think about domestic cats as cute animals, but cats have the dark side, ignored by cat owners (16). Cats are predators, which mean they kill and eat other animals.
Some animal lovers and welfare organizations propagate the view of cats as fragile animals, struggling to survive and unable to feed themselves without human help (17). Cats and dogs benefit from being fed and cared by humans, because of this reason; cats and dogs have a better life than any other animal.
In Australia the image of the cat is very different. A cat is not seen as potential human companion, but as ruthless killer of protected animal species.
Domestic cats mostly feed on small mammals. Cats are very adaptable and will hunt what’s available in their environment. In many countries, such as in Anatolia, cats help to get rid of pests, mice and rats. But in Australia feral cats may be a problem, because small and endangered Australian animals could also become cats’ prey.
Cats may contribute to decline of native species
|Endangered Northern Quoll. (University of Technology SydneyAAP)|
Rare species of Australian mammals are at threat of extinction. Along with habitat destruction, cats could be another reason why these animals are disappearing, some studies show.
Cats are blamed for killing native small mammal species, reptiles, birds and amphibians, about 23 species in total (17). Australian government website claims that “cats threaten the survival of over 100 native species in Australia” (18). Australia’s first threatened-species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, exaggerated the number further “Over 120 Australian animals are at risk of extinction from feral cats. So the scientific evidence is crystal clear that they’re the biggest threat.” (19) But are feral cats really the biggest threat?
|A feral cat, shot by a man, lies with its victim bilby (couriermail.com.au)|
Blaming feral cats as the main reason of Australian animal extinctions is unfair. There are numerous reasons why some native animal populations became endangered. Climate change and habitat destruction are primary reasons why species are disappearing (20). Forests were cut and turned into farmlands; native animals were intentionally persecuted and massively hunted (21). Mining which helped to grow Australian economy, is especially damaging activity for the environment (22). But for some reason, the mistakes of humans are downplayed. It’s more convenient to blame a cat for all the problems.
Australia is a harsh land. Seasonal changes in weather, rainfall, draughts and temperature, forest fires – all these make lives of both native and introduced animals hard. Besides feral cats, there are other introduced predators like foxes and rats.
Nobody can deny that cats kill other animals. But they do this in order to survive and feed themselves. They are not evil. Nature is a battlefield, where every animal struggles to survive in a way it can.
What about Australian marsupials and birds - animals killed by cats? Can’t we empathize with them too? None of these animals wish to become a meal for the feral cat. But should we kill a cat in order to save native Australian animals?
The old new politician’s agenda against feral cats
It’s hard to imagine any country, where politician’s speech about plans to kill millions of cats would not be met with outrage from animal lovers. But in Australia it seems to be very usual and even normal. And this has been so for many years. Could it be something to do with Australian culture?
It may seem that Australian plans to kill cats are fairly recent, but the idea itself is older than 20 years or maybe more.
Australian politicians spoke against feral cats and the need to get rid of them.
In 1992 Phillip Smiles, a member of NSW Parliament's North Sydney wanted a legislation to allow dog catchers to catch and destroy feral cats (23).
In 1996, another politician Richard Evans wished to kill all feral cats by the year 2020 and force all cat owners to neuter their pets (24).
Animal welfare specialist Charles Wright responded to Richard Evans’ saying that the plan was mad and that they will “never wipe out all cats". The estimates of how many animals a cat kills daily were manufactured "by a farfetched politician who just wants to obtain some sort of publicity for his own end -- at the expense of the poor old cat." (25)
Feral cats were listed as a threat for wildlife in Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. (26)
Cats lived in Australia for about 200 years. In the last two decades Australian government has begun massive slaughter campaigns aimed to kill feral cats as many as possible. The shooting and poisoning of cats have been practiced for decades, but only recently the foreign media became interested in Australian cat problem.
What if politicians are right and feral cats really are destroying Australian ecosystem? Are their decisions really based on science? Or it is simply a cat-hating?
What does science say?
The science of feral cats and their influence to Australian ecosystem is far more complicated. Science is not equal to mindless killing encouraged by Australian politicians.
There are scientific studies that demonstrate that cats could be responsible for decline of many animal species in Australia (27, 28, 29). Particularly in experimental studies (30), animals which were nearly extinct and were later reintroduced back to wild, could not increase in numbers if predators like feral cats or foxes, were present.
Some studies about feral cat diet involve catching and killing these cats. Then researchers identify the remains of animals found in cat’s stomach and try to predict how often and which native animals get eaten by cats (31, 32).
The scientific evidence that feral cats cause widespread extinctions is not very strong (33,34). Many studies rely on historical observations, which follow this type of logic: if cats lived in the areas where one species of native animals went extinct, it means cats must be responsible for these extinctions.
The studies suffer from major flaw: they are one-sided. The extinction of animals could be caused by any other reasons than predation of cats.
The ecosystems are very complicated and it is very difficult to isolate the factors, responsible for animal extinctions. “Existing data on causes of extinctions and threats are, in many cases, anecdotal, speculative, or based upon limited field observation” (35). For example, forest fires destroy the habitat, making animals unprotected and visible for predators (36). Cats are opportunists and will choose the locations where they can hunt with less effort. Suddenly, the small mammal’s numbers significantly drop. The cat is then blamed. However the environmental disaster is the root of cause, leaving native animals with no place to hide.
Creating the suitable conditions where native animals could flourish is far more important than spending money for killing the predators.
“Maintenance of habitat complexity can help reduce invasive predator impacts, and in some situations, this is likely to be more effective than lethal control”. (37) Habitat protection, fire management, re-vegetation (replanting trees) would allow protecting the native species and at the same time co-existing with introduced predators.
Can native animals and cats live together? It may be possible, if native animals are given advantage over predators and they are thought to stay away from cats. Australian conservationists breed rare species of animals, such as bilbies, and after attempt to return these animals back to the wild. However efforts often fail, because these endangered animals are naïve: they do not recognize cats as a danger. The Arid recovery reserve tries to teach native animals how to avoid cats by training them to associate cat urine and simulated cat attacks with an unpleasant experience (38).
Do most of cats prefer to hunt endangered species? If a cat has a choice to kill a bilby or a rabbit, will it target a bilby?
The government publications and media sources show propagandistic photos of cats with colorful birds and endangered mammals in their mouths (39), but this not what cats usually eat. Feral cats kill a lot of more introduced pests, rather than exotic Australian mammals and birds. In central Australian grassland cats prefer native long haired rats R. Villosissimus (not protected species!) (40) and reptiles (not endangered). In Western Australia and other areas, cats feed on rabbits (41). As we know rabbits are pests and are hated as much as cats in Australia.
We can’t blame all feral cats for destroying native animals, because not all cats are good hunters. Larger males (3.5 kg or over) were identified as most destructive and killed the larger native animals, whereas females in the study did almost no damage to native animals (42).
Killing cats may do more harm than good. Cats from surrounding areas will replace those cats which were killed, the population will increase - not decline (43).
Since cats eat introduced rabbits and mice, killing cats will help rabbits and mice to survive better and take over ecosystems. In some islands black rats and rabbits did a significant damage to native plants and animal species, when cats and foxes were eliminated (44).
The interactions of cats and other animals are very complex. Red foxes suppress feral cats – killing foxes will increase the number of cats. But dingoes are top-predators and suppress both foxes and cats (45, 46). Another nearly extinct predator known as Tasmanian devil could also control cats (47).
Introducing more dingoes and Tasmanian devils to protected areas may drive cats and foxes away and this way save the animals Australians care about (45,46,47).
In conclusion, the available scientific research shows that feral cats may have an effect on native animal populations, however to what extent is not very clear. In order to protect native Australian animals, the control of feral cats is necessary.
How should Australians control their cats? Killing is not a good long-term solution, because it is not effective, and most importantly, unethical. Science does not say that killing of cats is the best solution. In contrary, lethal control could lead to failure, not success.
But why does the Australian government so strongly defend cat killing and not want to hear about any alternatives?
Australian nationalism is rooted in xenophobia
Australian sociologist, Adrian Franklin asked a question: Why are Australians so against the feral cat when other countries are not? (48)
Cat acquired the negative image for reasons other than its actual behavior and “true” impact on Australian environment. Feral cat is a metaphor for a migrant which threatens “natural Australian order”. (48,49)
Native Australian animals and plants became Australian national identity, which Adrian Franklin called “eco-nationalism” (49):
“Australian eco-nationalism is a specific blend of environmentalist and patriotic sentiments which, in an exaggerated way, positions the feral cat as a rapacious European invader predating on native wild life. More specifically, the cat has fallen victim to our anxieties and insecurities as migrants”.
The Nationalist ideology is not a natural thing. It is a creation of human societies. Nationalism is what holds people together who might otherwise fall apart. Nationalism is built of myths and stories that help to achieve blood-like bonds between complete strangers. Each country has a different ideology and a foundation on which it was built. As for Australian national identity, it was built on xenophobia.
“Fear of foreigners” could not be expressed towards humans, because many settlers of European origin, who came to Australia, were foreigners themselves. For this reason foreign animals became a symbol of national threat. It follows a simple logic: native animals are “good”; foreign animals are “bad”. Feral cat falls under category of “bad” in Australian mentality.
Writer, John Kinsella witnessed the brutal shootings of feral cats in the 80’s. He saved two kittens from killing, he accidently found under eucalypt tree in a farm from killing. Kinsella noticed, there was something wrong and irrational in Australian thinking about cats:
“To kill a cat or a fox was to save the environment. Leading environmentalists will turn from animal lovers to animal haters on this issue. “Cats are evil. If we don't remove the feral cat from native Australian bush land”, they'll say, “There’ll be no native species left. It doesn't belong, it has destroyed the balance”. (But) the problem is human - especially the use of European farming methods, intensive agriculture, the culture of profit. Removing the cat won't stop the disappearance of native species, it will just delay things. The cat is a scapegoat”. (50)
It’s worth to mention, that native Australians, aborigines, have a completely different understanding which animals are native and which are not. Aborigines hunt cats for meat but some keep them as pets (51).
From “Britanization” to “Australization”
Native wildlife was not always valued so highly by Australians.
“Australia did not have a social or cultural unity when Aboriginal peoples dominated the landscape, nor did they have a name for the continent on which they lived” (49).
When British and other European immigrants first came to Australia, they did not care to protect Australian wildlife, but wanted to change it (52). In 19th century immigrants aimed to transform Australia into a likeness of Britain, by introducing various animals from Europe to Australia. In that time native animals were seen as useless, weird and even dangerous. Many species were killed massively (53).
The lands were cleared for farming and trees cut, further destroying Australian nature.
With the arrival of European immigrants aboriginal people were pushed out of their lands, killed and died from introduced diseases brought by Europeans (54).
Native animals were exploited for profit: koalas were killed for fur, rare birds for feathers, kangaroos for meat and leather (55).
The form of hunting responsible for devastating losses of indigenous species was known as “professional shooting”. Very few species were not shot (56).
Australia has a long history of hunting tradition. Hunting in Australian society is seen moral and acceptable. It is also associated with masculinity (57).
Farmers killed native animals not for “sport“but because they believed animals were agricultural pests. In 1932 farmers and soldiers shot large numbers of Emu birds to protect wheat fields, in event known as “Great Emu war”. Between 1945 and 1960 no less than 284,704 emus were destroyed in Western Australia (58).
Rabbits and foxes were brought to Australia by immigrants for hunting (59). When rabbits were released to the wild, they had no predators; conditions were very good so they bred quickly. Rabbits did enormous damage to plants, soil and destroyed habitats of many native animals. Shooting and trapping were used, even a long fence was build (Rabbit-proof fence) to stop rabbit invasion. Nothing worked, until biological control, rabbit viruses, were introduced. In 1950 myxoma virus killed almost all rabbits (60). 1995 another rabbit virus, hemorrhagic disease (RHD) reduced rabbit population even further (61). However some rabbits developed resistance to viruses and continued to breed.
The growing independence from Britain and a rise of new type of Australian nationalism changed the native animal’s status. The continent's unique flora and fauna started to symbolize home and national identity for descendants of European immigrants.
“Australianisation was not simply about preserving the native species that so invoked nation: it subsequently became about eradicating those species introduced by the British during the colonial period, purifying an Australianness in the name of ecology or ecosystemic unity”. (49)
Native animals gained protection and introduced species were now seen as a threat and deserved to be eliminated.
“Why native animals enjoy privileges denied to other ‘out of ecology’ species? And the answer is simple enough: if they are from Australia they are natives – different rules apply. But the point to be made here is that these are not scientific but social and political rules”.
Hunters in Australian culture have very positive image, because they kill for a noble aim: they help to save the wildlife. Anything, even brutal killings are justified, if only they benefit the Australian wildlife.
Dingoes are native Australian dogs, yet they are still shot and poisoned.
The hatred of non-native animals is deeply integrated in Australian culture, nationalism, and politics. A cat is a foreign animal and a predator that sometimes kills native animals. Native animals are a part of Australian nationalistic ideology. Any threat for native animals is also seen as a threat for Australian nation, its unity, and identity.
Cat haters as heroes
A man, who boasts how many cats he shot in his lifetime, would probably be punished for animal cruelty. Not so in Australia. A cat hater is still a hero if his acts are justified by one reason: Saving native animals. A cat hater may even be honored by giving him “Prime Minister's Environmentalist of the Year” award. (64)
Meet John Wamsley. He is one of most famous cat haters of Australia, who once said “The only good cat is a flat cat “ (65), proudly showing off with a skin of feral cat on his head, which he killed.
This man is also extremely wealthy. He established a private conservation company Earth Sanctuaries Limited, covering around 100,000 hectares of land (66).
There were times in Australia when it was illegal to shoot feral cats. But Wamsley did everything to change that law (67). He succeeded. ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) called Wamsley as “one of Australia's genuine visionaries” and as “legendary man” (67). Wamsley even has a documentary film called “Wamsley's War”, telling about his struggle against feral cats (68).
Teaching children a hatred for cats
This image belongs to Kaye Kessing. She writes books for children and eats cats. “That feral cat” can be ordered from Australian government website.
Kaye Kessing is a well-known children's book writer. She loves Australian nature and cooking a lot.
She is an author of recipe called “catterole”. This special dish was offered for the Australian food competition. What is it dish is made of? It is made of cats (69).
"People just have to get over their emotion," said Kaye. “They have to realize the critical danger that these animals (cats) are causing." Eating cats, Kaye thinks, may help to save Australian animals. (70)
While Kaye Kessing’s advice to eat cats is disturbing and unacceptable, so is the fact, that her books will brainwash many Australian children to hate cats.
Cat fur trade
Killing non-native animals cost a lot of money. Feral cats are especially hard to catch. What if killing feral cats would be made to a profitable activity?
The fur of feral cats from cooler areas of Australia is seen as the highest quality. Until 1990’s cat fur was exported to European countries, like Germany, Britain, and Austria. The demand for cat fur has been declining since then and is not very profitable anymore. However, the Australian government believes, if fur products return to fashion abroad, Australian hunters could be rewarded by earning some money from killing feral cats (71).
Can all cats in Australia be ever eliminated?
Of course, it may well have been better if cats had never been introduced to Australia in the first place. But cats already became a part of Australian landscape and Australians will need to learn to live with them.
Killing of all cats in Australia is impossible and unrealistic. The Australian government knows this: cats can be only controlled, not completely eliminated (72). Cats are found in very low densities in many places throughout Australia. They are difficult to locate. Cats are also extremely cautious in nature.
Australian government cites a list over 100 of species that may be affected by feral cats (73). It’s true, some limited scientific research exists, supporting the hypothesis that feral cats are damaging to some Australian species. However, Australian government motives to kill feral cats are not driven by science. They come from nationalist ideology. Furthermore Australia has a history of using lethal methods, when non-native animals get out of control.
How many feral cats are in Australia?
Nobody knows. Australian government agrees that it is not possible to estimate how many feral cats live in Australia. The number of cats is believed to be 3.8- 18 million.
It’s worth to note that estimates of feral cats, even those cited in scientific publications, are unscientific and questionable. That there are 18 or 20 million cats in Australia is more a blind guess, not evidence (74).
Without knowing the number of cats, it’s difficult to know what damage they do to native animal species (75).
Australian environment Minister Greg Hunt says that there are 20 million cats and they kill over 20 billion native Australian animals (76). Politicians and some media sources manipulate with numbers. They always choose the largest estimates like 20-30 million to make problem of feral cats appear “bigger” and more urgent.
Did Australian feral cats become 20 kg super cats?
|Peter Daalder - Tasmania, Australia|
The Australian government and those concerned about the wildlife, often use the propaganda to create a negative image of feral cats. Photographs of hissing, angry feral cats make them look wild and dangerous. The government and environmentalists also portray feral cats with exotic dead birds and endangered species, in reality, rarely hunted by cats. It helps further to strengthen hatred towards feral cats.
As we explained before, feral cats are the same domestic cats, and the only difference from your pet cat is, a feral cat avoids and fears humans.
All reliable sources and government reports describe Australian feral cats within normal range of domestic cats, about 3-4 kg on average (77). Feral cats in Australia look like most of domestic cats. Furthermore the Australian government even investigated, if large exotic wildcats are present in Australia. They could not find any convincing evidence of large felines (78).
But what about the claims that Australian cats evolved to unusually large cats?
The myth of giant Australian cats exist for more than hundred years, but only recently the photos of unusually large shot cats flooded the Internet and caused an excitement worldwide. A few examples of photographs of large feral cats shot by Australian hunters and an aborigine went viral. However the way these photos were taken should arouse suspicion: cats were placed close to camera, making humans look smaller and cat’s body was stretched. The source is also questionable and the reported unusually large measurements of hunted feral cats could not be verified.
Although we cannot rule out that there are larger than average cats, but these cats are rarer examples of large domestic cats and never a size of leopard. Larger cats still will fit to the domestic cat range (80).
But could cats undergo such a fast evolution and become exceptionally large cats in just a couple of centuries? Ironically, even people who reject evolution, use the argument that cats in Australia evolved to abnormally large size in a very short period of time.
The fast evolution of domestic cat transforming into large “super-cat” is impossible and is a complete nonsense. People, who believe this, do not know what evolution is and how it works. Evolution is a very slow process. There is no advantage for a domestic cat to become larger. After all, larger cats are more noticeable and will be killed first. This could drive evolution to the opposite direction in a long term - smaller cats which will be able to hide better from hunters.
We should remember that this gigantic Australian cat myth is not a harmless fairy-tale. The purpose of this myth is to convince people that feral cats are very different from the socialized pet cats. In this way the government wants to gain support from cat lovers for the campaigns that kill feral cats. People who spread "gigantic cat" myth known, that larger animals are associated with danger and fear, making people less likely to pity them.
Feral cat control and impact to their welfare
|Cats killed in Australia. Lethal methods promoted by Australian government support cruelty against cats. (Photo: Evan Morgan)|
Animal welfare in Australia is only about some native animals. Rare endangered species receive the highest protection from harm and killing. Other native animals protected to a varying degree: sometimes protected and sometimes not, as it is for example with dingoes. Kangaroos are protected under law, but despite this, at least 3 million of them are killed every year (81).
Introduced animals receive the worst treatment: methods allowed for killing pay little regard to their welfare. Introduced animal suffering does not matter. There are some exceptions, of course. Wild horses called brumbies. Many people and welfare organizations in Australia have different feelings towards wild horses and oppose killing of them, despite of that these animals are not native and do damage to Australian ecosystem (82).
The ownership of cats in Australia is declining. One of reasons is that people became concerned about damage done by cats to Australian native animals (83). Even well-fed pet cats may kill. Government wishes that all owned cats would be kept indoors at all times (84).
Conservationists are afraid that pet cats could be abandoned and would become a source of feral cats. Some even proposed that cats should be replaced with native animals (85). Bandicoots, bilbies, possums, and quolls could be kept as pets by Australians. This view is strongly supported by pet industry. Despite of conservation benefits of this practice, there are serious welfare issues. These native mammals need a special care, diet, housing, healthcare and social life, and if those needs are not met, these animals will suffer. Other problems like breeding for profit, breeding for exaggerated unnatural looks and illegal trade from the wild (85). For these reasons the government and conservationists do not promote native animals as pets.
Feral cats legally have no protection from harm. This means every cat hater can torture a cat as he/she wishes, in name of saving “native species” and do not fear a punishment afterwards. Since the Australian government openly encourages trapping, shooting and poisoning the cats, all these methods support cruelty and the hate towards cats (86).
The largest animal welfare organization RSPCA which supposedly promotes the ethical treatment of animals, do not defend cats. RSPCA fully supports government decisions to kill feral cats (87). RSPCA also approved a poison called “Curiosity” which works by suffocating cats, as “humane” (88). How humane is it making a cat suffocate? RSPCA, like many other welfare organizations worldwide, cares more about money and prestige, not animal welfare. The other Australian cat welfare organizations are passive and have little power to change the current situation.
TNR (trap neuter realize) is the most humane method to deal with feral cats and it works in most of environments. While after TNR feral cats will no longer reproduce, they still will hunt. Australian government does not care about lives of feral cats, but wants to get rid of them in any way possible. In a society where a cat’s life is regarded worthless, we cannot expect that cat welfare will be taken seriously.
Feral cat control methods currently used:
Poisoning (baiting) with Sodium fluoroacetate (1080) known as rat poison. Just before cat dies, it suffers from pain, convulsions and vomiting. A new type of poison “Curiosity” (89) suffocates a cat to death.
Shooting – according to government recommendations single shot to center of cats head is “humane“ enough. This method is rated the highest in “humaneness” scale, because it is thought not to cause much suffering (90).
Advice how to shoot a feral cat causing “the least suffering possible”. pestsmart.org.au website (Invasive Animals CRC). Guidelines approved by Australian government.
The government guidelines state that if a lactating female cat was shot, her kittens must be found and quickly killed. They explain kittens without mother would starve, so it’s more ethical just to kill them (91).
Shooting is not effective in significantly reducing feral cat populations, particularly over the longer-term. The pet cats also may not be safe outdoors, since they can be mistaken for a feral cat and be shot. If an inexperienced person shoots, a cat could be injured instead of killed instantly, and suffer a lot of pain.
Trapping – cat is trapped to cage and then shot (92).
Padded-jaw traps – cats leg usually gets into metal trap and cannot escape, when found it is shot (93).
Soft net traps (94)
Exclusion fencing - building a fence that cats could not enter to protected area. Used with shooting, poisoning and trapping (95).
Killing cats will not solve Australian problems
Why can’t just Australians neuter their feral cats? Australian feral cat problem does not have simple solutions.
International Society of Feline Medicine recommends in its guidelines TNR for most of cases where population of cats must be controlled and is against killing of cats because “cats have value as sentient beings and their welfare is important” (96). Euthanasia, taking cat’s life with injection, is only for rare cases, for example, severely ill cats.
TNR is a high cost and labor intensive method, which involves trapping a cat, doing a neutering surgery and bringing it back to the wild. Over the long term it is both effective and ethical solution. But it may not work for all environments and societies, where cat welfare is not seen as important.
Australian government wants a fast way to end lives of cats – as many as possible. The lives of the cats in Australia, unless they are owned by somebody, have no value. Cats in Australia do not have a status of sentient being as in many other countries.
TNR is not suitable solution for Australian feral cats. Australian society does not think that feral cats are valuable. Killing of cats and other introduced species is morally acceptable in Australian culture.
As with rabbits, viruses and diseases or biocontrol agents were suggested as a solution for feral cat problem. Biocontrol agents are very risky for pet cats, and if it escapes the country, effects could be disastrous both for domestic cats and other feline species (96). It is not an ethical and welfare friendly solution either, because it causes suffering to the cat.
What could be done to preserve native species and reduce the need for cat killing?
• Preserve habitats: Replant trees, fence protected areas and manage fire accidents (very important!).
• Support the research for Immunocontraceptive and chemicals that would permanently sterilize feral cats. This solution should not cause any unnecessary suffering, would be more efficient than TNR, because no surgery is required. If possible, Immunocontraceptive should be delivered without trapping feral cats to prevent stress. The effective vaccine that would permanently sterilize cats is under development by American scientists (96a). Unfortunately, the permanent sterilization may not stop Australian government from killing, if it is not willing to change its anti-cat politics.
• Control animals what cats eat, like rabbits. Less prey means fewer cats. However conservationists are afraid that cats will turn to eating native mammals and birds if a supply of rabbits is reduced. The programs, teaching native species bred in captivity how to avoid cats are promising.
• Introduce dingoes and Tasmanian devils to protected areas. Cats will avoid places where these two predators are present.
• Australians have to accept the fact, that cats already became a part of ecosystem. The Australian ecosystem will never be the same as it was before introduced species arrived there. By killing cats in brutal ways, Australian government violates the cat welfare and encourages abuse of all cats, owned or unowned and wastes money which could be spent directly to protect native animals and their habitats.
Australian newspaper The Conversation published an article suggesting that feral cats in Australia should be given citizenship (97). The idea behind this ironic claim is to change Australian attitudes towards feral cats by accepting them as a part of Australian ecosystem, rather than wasting effort and money to kill them. This approach may not be radical elsewhere in the world, but in Australia, where fight against cats is a national ideology; this idea is unacceptable and taboo.
The hatred of cats is tied to Australian national identity and politics. The feral cat issue is hard and maybe impossible to solve, because it requires a radical change in Australian society. The people, who created Australia as we know it today, European immigrants, did an irreversible damage to Australia's nature. Australian ecosystem will never be as it was hundred years ago. The Australian government's killing of invasive animals is not going to save Australian animals.
We can only hope that better ways will be found to control feral cats which will prevent killings and suffering of cats. Unfortunately, the current situation of cats in Australia is not likely to change anytime soon. Australians need to revolutionize their way of thinking about all introduced animals. Perhaps, one day, feral cats in Australia will be accepted as “Australian”, if ever. But until then, the life of Australian feral cat will be full of horror and misery…
Sources & References
1. Simon Lauder, ABC Radio, The war on feral cats begins, July 16, 2015
1a. Elise Snashall Woodhams, Fur flies over plan to shoot feral cats, January 23, 2012
2. Brigitte Bardot condemns Environment Minister Greg Hunt's plan to cull 2 million feral cats, ABC, 23 Jul 2015
3. Luke Morgan Britton, Morrissey says Australia's plan to kill two million feral cats is 'taking idiocy too far', September 2, 2015. nme.com
4. Ishaan Tharoor, Australia actually declares ‘war’ on cats, plans to kill 2 million by 2020, Washington Post, July 16, 2015.
5. Gosling, L., Stavisky, J., & Dean, R. (2013). What is a feral cat? Variation in definitions may be associated with different management strategies. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 15(9), 759-764.
6. McCune, S. (1995). The impact of paternity and early socialisation on the development of cats’ behavior to people and novel objects. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 45, 109–124
7. Marston, L. C., & Bennett, P. C. (2009). Admissions of cats to animal welfare shelters in Melbourne, Australia. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science,12(3), 189-213.
8. Driscoll, C. A., Menotti-Raymond, M., Roca, A. L., Hupe, K., Johnson, W. E., Geffen, E., ... & Macdonald, D. W. (2007). The Near Eastern origin of cat domestication. Science, 317(5837), 519-523.
9. Vigne, J. D., Guilaine, J., Debue, K., Haye, L., & Gérard, P. (2004). Early taming of the cat in Cyprus. Science, 304(5668), 259-259.
11. Grahn, R. A., Alhaddad, H., Alves, P. C., Randi, E., Waly, N. E., & Lyons, L. A. (2015). Feline mitochondrial DNA sampling for forensic analysis: When enough is enough!. Forensic Science International: Genetics, 16, 52-57.
12. Bradshaw, J. (2014). Cat sense: How the new feline science can make you a better friend to your pet. Basic Books.
13. Although studies report that people who take care of community cats in their area, have generally positive attitudes towards cats living outside, the welfare organizations promote widespread neutering campaigns and some such as PETA says that “the street is no place for a cat”. Bird biologists and conservation organizations (in USA for example, The American Bird Conservancy) wish lethal control of freely living cats to prevent them from hunting valuable animals, such as birds or endangered species. a misguided belief there are too many cats - overpopulation and that there are not “enough homes for each cat”. Natural cats also discriminated having a lower worth compared to breeds.
14. Abbott, I. (2008). The spread of the cat, Felis catus, in Australia: re-examination of the current conceptual model with additional information. Conservation Science Western Australia, 7(1), 1-17.
15. Koch, K. (2014). Genetic diversity and phylogeography of Australian feral cats (Doctoral dissertation, Universität Koblenz-Landau).
Koch, K., Algar, D., & Schwenk, K. (2014). Population structure and management of invasive cats on an Australian Island. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 78(6), 968-975.
Lyons, L. A. (2014, August). Cat Domestication & Breed Development. In 10th World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production. Asas.
15a. Nardine Groch, ABC News, Feral cats tear through last wild bilby population in Queensland’s Astrebla Downs National Park, 10 Oct 2014,
15b. Brian Williams, The Courier Mail, Feral cats wreak havoc in raid on 'enclosed' refuge for endangered bilbies, July 19, 2012
16. McDonald, J. L., Maclean, M., Evans, M. R., & Hodgson, D. J. (2015). Reconciling actual and perceived rates of predation by domestic cats. Ecology and evolution, 5(14), 2745-2753.
the list of sources is incomplete. It will be added later.
Authors: Perla Aksoy, Batu Aksoy
Publication date: 9/21/2015