Cat purge masks otherwise weak record on endangered species
CANBERRA, Australia––Cats were nowhere on the May 18, 2019 Australian federal election ballot, and were not among the official campaign issues for any of the contestants, either. Yet the Liberal Party scheme to kill two million cats by 2020 lurked just behind the polling results that on May 18, 2019 kept the Liberal-led government in power.
The Liberal victory means the attempted national purge of feral cats underway since 2015 will go on, full speed ahead, at any cost.
For most Australians, the cat purge is not really about cats at all, and never was. Nor is it about saving native wildlife, the official pretext for it, but a cause which otherwise has won little but lip service over the years from governments led by all major parties.
Surrogates & scapegoats
Cats, branded an “alien invader,” have long been surrogates and scapegoats for the fear of Asian immigration that has often driven Australian politics ever since the First Fleet in 1788 left 753 British prisoners and 277 others, including 222 women and 41 children, to fend for themselves on an unfamiliar continent.
The new arrivals were acutely aware that they were much closer to Southeast Asia and China than anywhere that looked like home, and desperately vulnerable to pirates. Yet the First Fleet arrivals were apparently unaware that they were landing an unknown number of cats along with 74 pigs, 29 sheep, seven horses, seven cattle, and six rabbits known to have survived the voyage.
That cats were not on the First Fleet landing roster, though traced to the First Fleet by recent historical research, has probably contributed to a succession of anti-cat policies now in effect for more than a century.
“Ramping up fears about refugees”
The Australian Liberal Party has since August 2018 been led by Scott Morrison, of Cook, New South Wales. The Morrison governing coalition “has a history of ramping up fears about refugees during campaigns,” recounted the Financial Times on April 11, 2019.
In the closing days of the campaign, the Financial Times predicted, “Morrison may try to manufacture a crisis. [In March 2019] he slammed Labor’s support for a bill to transfer sick asylum seekers held on South Pacific islands for treatment in Australia, warning that [the opposition leader] would allow ‘those suspected of violence, sexual crimes and abuse, including against children’ to walk Australian streets.”
Former Australian environment minister Greg Hunt, who made national policy of the cat extermination campaign long promoted by anti-cat conservationist John Woinarski, is now health minister in the Morrison government. Hunt was re-elected and is well-positioned to ensure that the cat killing continues.
“Patriots rallied to the cause”
“After Hunt announced the plan [to kill cats], editorials and letters almost universally welcomed it,” recalled New York Times magazine contributor Jessica Camille Aguirre in an April 25, 2019 feature entitled “Australia Is Deadly Serious About Killing Millions of Cats.”
Explained Aguirre, “The issue was framed as a grand scheme to protect Australia’s wildlife, as a war against cats — and, as with any war, it was couched in language about mission and values. Part of something uniquely Australian was under threat, and this is what it would take to save it. Patriots rallied to the cause.”
Aguirre accepted without evident question the decades old party line, amplified most vigorously by Woinarski, that “Feral felines are driving the country’s native species to extinction.”
Aguirre, like most who have not closely examined the science of the matter, evinced no awareness that the scientific basis for this much echoed claim is flimsy indeed––especially in view that feral cats are the primary control, biological or otherwise, on the Australian rat, mouse, and rabbit populations, also widely blamed for losses of native species.
“Gobsmacking how much hatred there is”
Indeed, Aguirre interviewed only one critic of the cat purge, Daniel Ramp, director of the Center for Compassionate Conservation in Sydney, and quoted him for just one sentence.
“I can’t help but use terms like ‘xenophobia,’” Ramp told Aguirre. “It’s gobsmacking how much hatred there is.”
Explained Aguirre, “Adherents to compassionate conservation say that Australia should embrace cats as an element of its environment, rather than trying to restore ecosystems to an arbitrary point in history whose selection is dependent on the whims of those doing the choosing.”
As Center for Compassionate Conservation cofounder Arian Wallach often suggests, “Whether we like it or not, cats are now an integral part of Australia’s eco systems. We cannot get rid of them. We may as well learn to love them.”
Up to 100 cats per square kilometer?
Summarized Aguirre of the standard anti-cat argument, “Over millions of years of isolation, Australia’s native beasts became accustomed to a different predatory order, so while cats aren’t necessarily more prevalent there than anywhere else, their presence is more ruinous. They have also become nearly ubiquitous: According to the estimates of local conservationists, feral cats have established a permanent foothold across 99.8 percent of the country, with their density reaching up to 100 per square kilometer in some areas.”
Aguirre did not mention that only areas with plentiful mice, rats, and/or rabbits could possibly sustain that many cats.
Instead, Aguirre devoted most of her 5,873-word feature to profiling several of the Australians who are hell-bent on extirpating feral cats despite the likelihood that they cannot possibly succeed in achieving a goal that eluded medieval Europe over several hundred years of persecution of cats with religious zeal.
Among Aguirre’s profile subjects was “Dr. Death, whose real name is Dr. Dave Algar, principal research scientist in the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions for the state of Western Australia,” developer of sausages made from kangaroo meat, chicken fat, and sodium fluoroacetate, the poison better known as Compound 1080.
These, along with Compound 1080-based cat poisoning pellets called Eradicat, and a similar pellet called Curiosity, using a different toxicant, are extensively air-dropped in remote regions to try to kill cats.
But “Even though large-scale baiting has proved effective at reducing the number of cats, often by half or more,” Aguirre said, not citing any data in support of that claim, recreational cat-shooters have killed the most.
“Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology data,” Aguirre wrote, “showed that shooters were responsible for 83% of feral-cat deaths nationally in the first year of Australia’s efforts. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology estimated that 211,560 cats were killed during the first 12 months after the plan was announced,” of the two to six million feral cats targeted for extermination.
This would amount to, at most, about a seventh of the number of cats who would have to be killed each year just to prevent a population increase––if the arid conditions of much of Australia could support an increase.
“Conservation or politics?”
Among the cat purge plan critics whom Aguirre overlooked were conservation biologists Tim S. Doherty, Don A. Driscoll, Dale G. Nimmo, Euan G. Ritchie, and Ricky‐John Spencer, whose extensive critique “Conservation or politics? Australia’s target to kill 2 million cats” was published on February 19, 2019 in the journal Conservation Letters, published by the Society for Conservation Biology.
“We argue that the well‐publicized target to cull two million feral cats has a weak scientific basis,” the five scientists began, because: (1) reliable estimates of Australia’s cat population size did not exist when the target was set; (2) it is extremely difficult to measure progress (numbers of cats killed) in an accurate, reliable way; and, most importantly, (3) the cull target is not explicitly linked to direct conservation outcomes (e.g., measured increases in threatened species populations).
“These limitations mean that the cull target fails to meet what would be considered best practice for pest management,” the five continued. “The focus on killing cats runs the risk of distracting attention away from other threats to biodiversity, most prominent of which is widespread, ongoing habitat loss.
“We are concerned,” the five scientists emphasized, “that progress toward the two million target could be misinterpreted as progress toward conserving threatened species, when the link between the two is not clear.”
Little actually links cats to extinctions
For Aguirre, as for most casual supporters of the cat purge, the bottom line is that, in Aguirre’s words, “Since the First Fleet’s arrival, 34 mammal species have gone extinct in Australia. All of them existed nowhere else on earth; they’re gone. More than 100 mammal species in Australia are listed as between ‘near threatened’ and ‘critical’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The continent has the highest mammal extinction rate in the world. Cats are considered to have been a leading threat for 22 of the extinct species, including the broad-faced potoroo, the crescent nailtail wallaby and the big-eared hopping mouse.”
That might sound persuasive to those who have not actually read The Action Plan for Australian Mammals 2012, the government document that supposedly rationalizes the cat purge.
The Action Plan for Australian Mammals 2012 “is over 1,000 pages and costs over $100,” points out Australian Saving Pets blogger Shel Williamson, “which is probably why most people quoting the ‘22 extinct mammals’ statistic haven’t read the full paper.”
What about the broad-faced potoroo?
Williamson in a June 9, 2017 installment entitled “Did cats really cause the extinction of 22 Australian mammals” extensively reviewed the The Action Plan for Australian Mammals 2012 discussion of the causes of extinction of 32 species, not just the 22 supposedly killed off in part by cats, finding little cited evidence that cats had much to do with the loss of any of them.
The broad-faced potoroo?
“The last specimen was obtained in 1895, Williamson wrote. “ Most accounts note that it was a rare species. There is evidence for epizootic disease as the primary factor (for extinction), but probably interacting with drought and predation,” together “changes in fire regimes and increased sheep grazing.”
How about the crescent nailtail wallaby?
The crescent nailtail wallaby?
“The wallaby remained common,” Williamson summarized, “until about 1900. It had begun a steep decline by 1908. The last specimen of this wallaby to be collected alive was caught in a dingo trap on the Nullarbor Plain in 1927 or 1928,” though some survived until “about 1956. Habitat degradation, including changing fire regimes and the impact of rabbits and introduced stock,” especially sheep, may have had an impact,” Williamson assessed.
“Predation from introduced foxes and cats” has been blamed for the loss of the crescent nailtail wallaby, Williamson acknowledged, but the foxes preyed primarily on rabbits and sheep, and on cats as well.
“Extinction caused by cats?” Williamson concluded. “Probably cascading environmental factors, including pastoralism, causing vulnerability to fox predation.”
And the large-eared hopping-mouse?
The large-eared hopping-mouse?
The last specimen of this species was collected in 1843.
“The large-eared hopping-mouse’s habitat, loamy valley soils with grass, was used for sheep herding at the time of extinction; this would have degraded its habitat and collapsed its burrows,” Williamson explained. “There is evidence for an exotic epizootic disease as the primary factor for extinction. The true reason for the extinction of the big eared hopping mouse is unknown,” while any role of cats is speculative at best.”
Rat plague follows cat-killing
The ecological consequences of a lack of cats, meanwhile, is evident on Lord Howe Island, off the east coast of Australia, about 300 miles northeast of Sydney.
“A radical plan to rid Lord Howe Island of a rat plague by aerial baiting has split the community,” reported Janet Fife-Yeomans and Mark Morris of The Daily Telegraph on April 21, 2019, “with tourists warned against eating fish and plans to pour milk from the island’s dairy herd down the drain.”
The last cats on Lord Howe island, and feral pigs, who competed with rats for food, were killed circa 2000.
(See What if an island has no cats? and When the cats are away, the mice will play––and the rats & rabbits.)
Bombed to save it
Now, Fife-Yeomans and Morris wrote, “Tons of rat poison will be dumped by helicopter across the pristine World Heritage-listed paradise,” in an operation requiring that “Some cattle will be evacuated from the island, tourists are banned from walking in the forests that cover three-quarters of the land, and islanders are advised to cover their roofs with tarps to stop the bait from poisoning their water tanks.
“Taronga Zoo keepers will be corralling 126 each of the Lord Howe Island woodhen and currawong for the duration of the baiting operation to stop them being wiped out.”
In other words, Lord Howe Island is being bombed in order to allegedly save it.
But the rats are very likely to survive and eventually repopulate.
Kangaroos targeted too
Australian native species, incidentally, are treated no differently when their presence becomes inconvenient to human interests.
“Just over 4000 eastern grey kangaroos will be shot over the next 10 weeks,” reported Peter Brewer of the Canberra Times on May 7, 2019. Shooting locations the Mount Majura, Mount Ainslie, Crace and Callum Brae nature reserves, Brewer disclosed.
“The 2019 cull quota is more than twice that of 2018, when 1,822 kangaroos were culled within the Australian Capital Territory,” Brewer continued. “A further 1431 were shot at the Googong foreshores.
The Australian Capital Territory government “says the prevailing dry weather conditions have created an environment in which thousands of kangaroos will starve to death during the coming winter due to a lack of grass,” Brewer explained.
“Government trying to have it both ways”
Countered Animal Liberation ACT spokesperson Carolyn Drew, “The government is trying to have it both ways. It says that the reason why eastern greys are so prolific around the Australian Capital Territory is that there is plenty of feed for them here. But then they say but we have to kill them, just in case they starve.”
Mentioned Brewer, “Since 2015 the ACT government has been field-testing the dart-borne injection of 142 female kangaroos with a contraceptive vaccine. Although the program is fraught with cost and complexity, breeding was prevented in 92% of the injected animals.”
New South Wales state meanwhile relaxed recreational kangaroo shooting requirements in June 2018, to encourage more people to participate in mass culls on behalf of livestock grazers.
Natalie (Atia) says
A recent NPR series looked at how the glass used in modern architecture is killing an estimated 100 million to a billion birds every year in the United States. Not to mention humans being the most destructive of all species for birds by destroying their habitats, we kill them with cars, airplanes, toxic pesticides, poisoned water and plants, we erect wind turbines that kill them, and modern glass building that are lethal to birds. We capture exotic birds for legal, but mostly illegal trade, we imprison them in little cages for our amusement. AND we hunt them. So let’s not vilify cats when we have done so much more to eradicate bird populations!
Laurella Desborough says
Speaking as a person who likes cats and has taken in several unwanted cats, I simply cannot fathom the idea that there is anything wrong with removing cats from the wild in Australia. These cats are DECIMATING wildlife and NEED to be removed. If that means killing them, then so be it. Cats are an invasive species, not just in Australia, but worldwide, including in the USA. To promote ANY idea that cats should not be removed goes against the conservation of wildlife. As a cat lover, I will personally trap or shoot feral cats on my property in order to protect native species of birds and animals and herps.
Merritt Clifton says
The above comment was edited to eliminate redundancy. Unfortunately, it also reflects the ecological ignorance which has prevailed among birders, especially in the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, since the heyday of Massachusetts ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929), whose many mistakes in observation included dogmatically insisting that birds do not prey on other birds. Much of the alleged harm to birds that Forbush influentially misattributed to cats is now known to be normal gull and crow predation on other shorebird and shore-nesting species. (See How a birder’s mistakes incited 100 years of cat hatred.) Predator ecologists today generally recognize that most predation by mammals, including cats, is compensatory, not additive, meaning that most of the animals they kill are already diseased or injured, and will not contribute to breeding populations. Predation meanwhile prevents deadly infectious diseases from spreading, especially among flocking bird species. In addition, in Australia especially, cats significantly enhance the survival chances of small burrowing marsupials, as the major brake on much more prolific habitat competitors, including mice, rats, and rabbits. Unfortunately, Australian government policy, and the policy positions of the largest U.S. bird conservation societies, remain decades behind current science, while extolling the pseudo-science of those who continue to amplify many of Forbush’s most egregious errors. The Australian government did several years ago acknowledge the largest mistake in their assessment of the extent of cat predation, by reducing the killing target of the present cat purge to two million, upon realizing that the total Australian feral cat population is only about two million, not the 18-20 million that anti-cat activists had claimed.
Jamaka Petzak says
More senseless tragedy and loss of precious lives brought about by the fearfully, arrogantly ignorant, who themselves need corralling, to say the least.
Dr. Adele Fisher says
In Europe in the Middle Ages cats were associated with witches and were killed.. As a consequence rats and their fleas flourished and brought on the plague, which killed many humans. Perhaps the Australian state sponsored killing of cats should be reconsidered!!
James H. Mundy IV says
You guys do much needed well researched outstanding analysis of many misaligned human-animal issues of today…..and others. Keep it up.
Elizabeth Clifton says
Thank you very much James from both of us!
The Internet-boosted popularity and affection for cats has most certainly reached Australia. I personally have seen major changes in my lifetime in my part of the US regarding attitudes toward cats. We still have a long way to go, but things are improving regarding cat welfare/concern at least. And I honestly do think the Internet and its widespread affection for cats has a lot to do with it.
Certainly more Australians are fighting this?