New study reports the findings but ignores their meaning
BRISBANE, Australia––Normally, if a major study discovers an alleged ecological problem to be just 10% as bad as was previously imagined, one might expect celebration to follow.
The researchers, other experts, nonprofit organizations, and every politician who ever addressed the issue, however transiently, might be expected to be exchanging “high fives” over the purported victory, claiming credit for the lion’s share of it, and elbowing each other to be front-and-center in photographs of the winning team.
But not in Australia, despite the insistence of Aussies that the term “Down Under” does not really mean “Upside down and backward.”
Not when the subject is cats.
Not when the research was funded by the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Program.
Research directed by cat purge advocate
Not when the research was directed by former Australian Wildlife Conservancy scientist Sarah Legge, now a research fellow at the University of Queensland.
Legge, according to her University of Queensland online biography “sits on a number of advisory committees, including the Commonwealth Government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee, Birdlife Australia’s Threatened Species Committee, the Christmas Island Cat Eradication Project Advisory Committee and the Commonwealth Government’s Feral Cat Taskforce.”
Plan to kill perhaps as many cats as exist
Not when all of them work basically under the jurisdiction of Australian threatened species commissioner Gregory Andrews and environment minister Greg Hunt, who in July 2015 committed themselves to killing two million feral cats by 2020.
Said Hunt through a spokesperson then, “With around 20 million feral cats in Australia and with each feral cat estimated to kill at least five native animals a day,” an alleged rate of consumption about five times higher than a cat’s actual appetite, “they pose an enormous threat to our native species.”
Translation: if these people and institutions fairly and accurately reported their findings, they might all be unemployed.
Cats cover the continent?
At that, though, Legge and University of Queensland colleagues more accurately described their findings than Brisbane Times reporter Rae Johnston’s January 4, 2017 summary of it.
Opened Johnston, “New research has shown feral cats cover over 99.8 per cent of Australia’s land area. By comparison, 85.1 per cent of Australia has internet access.”
Neither feral cats, nor even just a giant rug made from their fur, really cover all the nearly three million square miles of Australia, the world’s sixth largest nation by land mass. What Johnston really meant was simply that feral cats may sometimes hunt over nearly all of the Australian land mass.
Cats hunt mice, rats, & rabbits
What Johnston might have added is that most of the feral cat presence is not associated with any loss of endangered species, since most of the 20 Australian native species that cats are alleged to have helped to kill to extinction inhabited only small offshore islands.
Further, the most noteworthy mainland and large-island extinction since cats arrived in Australia with the first European settlers in the early 19th century, was that of the Tasmanian tiger, an occasional feral cat predator, albeit also a rival to feral cats in hunting small prey.
Indeed, most of the feral cat presence in Australia is associated chiefly with hunting mice, rats, and rabbits, who are also introduced species and are abundant habitat rivals to the small marsupials whom feral cats are most often accused of harming.
What Legge really found
What did Legge et al really discover?
According to the University of Queensland summary, the Legge study, bringing together contributions from “more than 40 of Australia’s top environmental scientists and evidence from nearly 100 separate studies across the country,” concluded in Legge’s own words that “Australia’s feral cat population fluctuates between 2.1 million when times are lean,” barely more than 10% of Hunt’s claim, “up to 6.3 million when widespread rain results in plenty of available prey.”
Legge also found that “cat densities were the same both inside and outside conservation reserves, such as national parks,” despite several decades of all-out efforts to eradicate feral cats from protected habitat.
“Highlights the scale & impact”
Said Legge, “Our study highlights the scale and impact of feral cats,” logically at about 10% the rate Hunt earlier projected, or even as little as 2%, adjusting for predation rates in the realm of actual cat hunting behavior, “and the urgent need,” Legge continued, “to develop effective control methods, and to target our efforts in areas where control will produce the biggest gains.”
What Legge meant by that, the University of Queensland summary of her findings explained, was that “in addition to strategic cat control in bushland areas,” where cats have already long been massacred as rapidly as they can be found, “there is a need to address feral cats in heavily urbanized areas where their population density could be 30 times higher than in natural environments.”
In other words, the feral cats are where the mice and rats are, mostly, not where the endangered birds and marsupials are, but killing cats in urban habitats is the only way to kill as many as two million cats by 2020.
The present Australian Environment Department plan to kill all the cats of Dirk Hartog, Bruny, Christmas, Kangaroo, and French Islands by 2030 will not bring the toll up even to 10,000, even if it wholly succeeds.
Among them, Kangaroo Island is believed to have the most cats: 3,000 to 5,000.
The cat purges––and others planned for the mainland of Australia––are to rely on a “new” poison called Curiosity, actually a variant of Compound 1080.
Developed by Nazis, banned by Nixon
Developed in Germany in 1942, ostensibly as a rodenticide but also used to kill human prisoners, Compound 1080 is odorless, has no taste, and is lethal if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through skin contact. Apart from the Nazi experiments, at least 13 humans have been killed by Compound 1080 accidents and use as a murder weapon.
Manufactured in the U.S. since 1956 by Tull Chemical of Oxford, Alabama, Compound 1080 was commonly used to kill coyotes until 1972, when use was prohibited, by order of then-U.S. president Richard Nixon, to protect wildlife. Nixon did not, however, ban manufacturing Compound 1080 for export to nations including Australia, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Korea.
In 1985 former U.S. President Ronald Reagan amended Nixon’s order to allow the use of Compound 1080-coated sheep collars, meant to kill coyotes as they bite the throats of the sheep.
Undermining conservation managers
Concluded Legge, “At the moment feral cats are undermining the efforts of conservation managers and threatened species recovery teams across Australia.”
But Legge did not mention that this “undermining” might be occurring mainly because cats are only a fraction as abundant and predatory as generations of conservationists and government officials have projected.
Instead of scapegoating from two to six million feral cats, Legge might have concluded but did not, if the Australian government and conservationists are serious about protecting endangered species, they might have to address the habitat damage done by the estimated 74 million sheep and 26 million cattle now roaming the continent, contributing to the desertification that is the major effect on already arid Australia of global warming.
2015 study showed culling cats backfires
Even had Legge presented her findings in context, Australian conservationists and government officials have a long history of ignoring science when it contradicts the official posture of ailurophobia.
For example, perhaps the strongest scientific support yet for one of the key presumptions behind neuter/return feral cat control emerged in 2015 from a 13-month study by Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries biologist Billie Lazenby and two colleagues.
Expecting to validate the use of lethal culling, Lazenby and fellow researchers N.J. Mooney, and C.R. Dickman instead found that culling tends to markedly increase the numbers of feral cats hunting in favorable wildlife habitat.
2013 study showed cat presence slows extinction rate
Two years earlier, in July 2013, biologist Emily Hanna of the Australian National University in Canberra reported on her findings from creating a database covering 934 living and extinct populations of 107 mammal species on 323 Australian islands, for as many years as population assessments existed
What Hanna found was that native mammals were most likely to go extinct on islands that had rats, but not cats, foxes, or dingoes. Islands with rats but no rat predators had extinction rates ranging from 15% to 30%, but islands with rats, cats, foxes, or dingoes had extinction rates of just over 10%, barely higher than on islands without any introduced predators.
The Hanna findings more-or-less mirrored the Australian experience from exterminating the feral cats of Macquarie Island, inside the Antarctic Circle.
When the killing began, Macquarie Island hosted about 10,000 feral rabbits and 2,500 feral cats, all descended from animals left on the island by visiting whalers circa 1820.
But the cats were blamed for killing as many as 60,000 sea birds per year, as well as preying on rabbits. As the numbers of cats declined, the last having been killed in 2000, the rabbit population increased, to an estimated 100,000 by 2007––and rabbit damage to bird nesting habitat proved far more damaging to the sea bird population than cat predation ever had been.
A seven-year rabbit extermination campaign followed.
1992 studies & exaggerations of cat impact
That the numbers of feral cats and their ecological impact on Australia were both grossly exaggerated was documented as early as 1992 in separate studies by University of Adelaide researcher David Paton, who vocally favored legislation to keep cats indoors, and National Parks & Wildlife officer Ric Nattrass, who concluded that the alleged cat threat was overblown.
Paton found that the average free-roaming cat in Adelaide killed 25 native animals per year. Figuring that the kill totals he discovered were only half of the actual feline impact, Paton extrapolated that across Australia, about 15 million feral cats collectively killed 75 million native animals annually.
Or so Associated Press reported. Barry Pullen, minister of conservation and parks in Victoria state, in a brochure entitled Protect Your Cat, Protect Your Wildlife, inflated the Paton findings to suggest that feral cats kill 100 million native animals per year in Victoria state alone.
How the “common dunnart” disappeared
Meanwhile, Nattrass reported, “Based on data collected by wildlife staff at the Moggill Centre, in Brisbane, there is no evidence to date that the domestic cat is a major threat to the longterm survival of the city’s native vertebrate fauna. From a purely conservation point of view, neither the numbers nor the species taken by cats are cause for alarm, when compared with the losses to urbanization, industrialization, motor traffic, and the creation of the horse paddock.”
As a specific example, Nattrass continued, “Very recently, the common dunnart was recorded in large numbers at Doolandella, where both feral and domestic cats operated in big numbers at night. Following development, the common dunnart cannot be found.”