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Killing Feral Cats in Australia: There Has to Be a Better Way

Australia's experience shows that eradication of species can have disastrous consequences for animals it was intended to protect.

Keith Bowers  |  Oct 15th 2015


Life on Earth is filled with cruel contradictions and ethical quagmires. Many species kill and eat others. It’s not fair on an individual scale, as when a bird of prey kills and eats a domestic cat, and it’s not fair on a large scale, as when feral cats eat another species into extinction. Yet it continues, this condition of existence.

So I understand the motivation of government officials in Australia who plan to kill millions of feral cats in an attempt to protect native species, as reported by the New York Times. It’s a quagmire of the highest order. Why should feral cats — who aren’t native to Australia — get to live while some native species have already been wiped out (including the crescent nailtail wallaby and big-eared hopping mouse), with others sure to follow?

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Two feral cats by Shutterstock

Yes. I get it. But there has to be a better way than mass killing. Non-native animal and plant species have run amok before, causing hardship and extinction for other species. No doubt about it — that’s bad. Yet just the same, human eradication efforts have also run amok and led to numerous unintended consequences, including harm to the species they tried to protect.

Singer Morrissey and actress Brigitte Bardot have criticized the Australian government over the plan. Wrote Morrissey, “We all know that the idiots rule the Earth, but this is taking idiocy just too far,” the Guardian reported. Bardot, meanwhile, called it “animal genocide.”

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Stray cat by Shutterstock

The Australian plan would kill feral cats using a poison called Curiosity, according to the country’s Department of the Environment. Morrissey characterizes Curiosity (which the government calls a “bait”) as a “gut-wrenching poison of the most unimaginable and lengthy horror,” while Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s office says it “works in a way that is similar to the cat falling into a deep sleep and not waking up.”

Regardless of whether it’s humane, it’s a bad idea for several reasons. What other species might the poison kill? How might the loss or decrease of those animals affect other species? How might the loss of the cats themselves affect the ecosystem? Even if the poison does kill only the cats, they’ve been in Australia for 200 years, so what harm might that cause? What of the pets the poison inadvertently kills?

Australia has tried this before, and results have been incomplete (at best) and disastrous (at worst). In the 1990s, Australia removed all the feral cats from an island called Macquarie to protect native sea birds. CBS News reported in 2009 that doing so let the rabbit population explode, which led to the loss of vegetation that the birds depended on for cover. One researcher described it as “environmental devastation” that cost some $16.4 million to undo.

Australia has also taken aim at rabbits, another non-native species, on multiple occasions. One effort in 1950 introduced the myxoma virus to the rabbit population. While that cut the population drastically, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported, the rabbits developed a resistance, and the numbers came back to problematic levels. What’s more, the virus mutated over time and became less lethal. What if it had mutated in another direction? Perhaps one that let it jump to other mammals?

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Gray feral cat by Shutterstock

Feral cats might not develop a resistance to Curiosity, but they will adapt. Feral cat advocates I’ve spoken to say that feral colonies maintain a certain equilibrium, and they fill vacuums when cats die or disappear. Australia is reported to have some 20 million ferals. So if the goal is to kill 2 million over the next five years, the total number of feral cats might well remain unchanged despite the killing.

Buying and administering the poison, then collecting and disposing of all the corpses, will take time and money. Might not the same resources be used toward studying and implementing trap-neuter-return programs, which have effectively reduced feral populations? This method would admittedly take longer than mass killing, yet it would be more humane and also give a better opportunity for Australia to react to any unintended consequences of the cats’ departure.

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Cats in a cage by Shutterstock

I understand the loss of native species is a big problem. It’s terrible. But we have the means to look at a solution better than the massacre that’s being proposed.

About Keith Bowers: This broad-shouldered, bald-headed, leather-clad motorcyclist also has passions for sharp clothing, silver accessories, great writing, the arts, and cats. Bowers, a career journalist, loves painting, sculpting, photographing, and getting on stage. He once was called “a high-powered mutant,” which also describes his cat, Thomas. He is senior editor at Catster.