by Deborah Cameron
Feral cat Australia - Photo by betta design (Flickr)
Romanticism means the longing for things past. This is very true of the people and organisations trying to remove feral cats from Australia. But which past, the past before white settlement? Maybe not a good choice, since over 40,000 years the aboriginal people had transformed a “tropical island” continent into mostly desert by using grass fires as a hunting and agricultural tool. As well as causing the extinction of Australia’s mega fauna, such as wombats the size of bison, four metre high kangaroos and a close relative of the Komodo Dragon, which was fifteen metres long. We know of the mega fauna from fossils and bones, but it is also highly likely that other species with finer bones, such as birds, reptiles and mice-sized marsupials also disappeared without a trace, as their bones would have quickly decayed.
Forty thousand years is a blink of an eye compared with the time it would have taken these animals to evolve, and the time it would take for other species to evolve compensatory strategies to deal with humans. The flora and fauna that survived were sufficiently robust to survive humans.
Aboriginals also introduced the Dingo to Australia. As the aboriginal people were nomadic, some dingoes quickly reverted to the life of their wild ancestors. The people who want to remove feral cats from the environment have a “blind eye” when it comes to dingo diet. All dogs are carnivores. What have the dingoes been eating for the past 40,000 years?
There is a fundamental truth about predators and prey everywhere on this planet. When there is an abundance of prey, predators increase in numbers. When the amount of prey is reduced by hunting, due to increased predation, the number of predators is reduced by starvation. When the number of predators is reduced, the prey species increase in numbers, and so the cycle begins again.
This is true for feral cats, as it is for dingoes. This explains why cats have never made a species extinct on the Australian mainland or Tasmania. Some animals have become locally extinct on small islands, but these can reinstated, after feral cat removal, by importing breeding colonies where they are in abundance.
There are very few feral cats or foxes, where there are well-established packs of dingoes. The dingoes simply occupy an ecological niche at the top of the food chain, which is occupied by feral cats and foxes when there are no dingoes. The simplest way to remove feral cats and foxes form Australia is to reintroduce dingoes from the areas that they once occupied.
But what happened to the indigenous dingoes that were there in the first place? Dingoes love the sheep introduced by the white settlers. Sheep graze in huge paddocks without trees or anywhere to take refuge, and they can’t escape the paddocks. Hunting them is very easy. Sheep weren’t designed for prolonged running, so it is easy to chase them to exhaustion, and they will not fight back like kangaroos, which are capable of disemboweling a dingo with their hind feet. Sheep farmers hate the dingoes decimating their flocks so they shoot them to keep the numbers down. In some places this is legal because the dingo occupies a precarious position, although it lives like a wild animal, it was introduced by the aboriginal people and therefore is not a true native animal.
Dingoes are a great example of trying to “have your cake and eat it too”. People want a romantic but unobtainable environment where there are only native animals, but will not reintroduce the dingo because it will damage the wool industry, which is a powerful political lobby.
So why all the concern about feral cats? Feral cats are the scapegoats for environmentalists and government departments.
Australia is prone to devastating bushfires. A major bushfire can kill millions of individual native animals, and yet no species extinctions have ever been attributed to bushfires, although species have become locally extinct until, by migration, the species re-establish themselves.
The same is true of feral cat culling programs on mainland Australia. In the unlikely event, that a government culling-program, could remove all feral cats from a defined area, the feral cats simply migrate to the area, which now has an empty predator niche and therefore a plentiful supply of food. No culling program on mainland Australia has ever been successful.
When Catspaw contacted the officer in charge of the most recent NSW feral cat cull, we asked him how the culling areas became repopulated with feral cats. He replied that the new inhabitants were obviously former pet cats. “ Where else would the cats come from?” he asked. We replied that as it has been compulsory for pet cats in NSW to be chipped for longer than the average lifespan of a cat, and a cat in NSW must be chipped if it is sold, and even though it is impossible, that the law can guarantee that all cats are chipped, a significant percentage are. Therefore, we asked, “How many shot cats had microchips?’ The officer replied that cat bodies were not scanned for chips. An as yet un-sourced report says that a sample of cat bodies was scanned, and no chipped cats were found.
Catspaw is primarily concerned with the frustration of government bodies and environmental groups which cannot eradicate feral cats, and which manifests this frustration in hatred and increased restrictions on pet cats, as they are “soft targets” and government bodies and environmental groups can have some hollow sense of achievement through restrictive legislation.
When the officer responsible for the federal cat cull was asked what percentage of wildlife was destroyed by pet cats, in comparison to feral cats, he replied that it was “negligible, too small to measure”. Catspaw asked if it could quote him. He requested that we not use his name, because he did not have the time to deal with threats from irrational members of the environment movement.
So where did the feral cats come from? Rabbits are not native animals, and they eat grass and European crops. When forest was cleared for pasture and European agriculture, rabbits bred up in plague numbers. In the 1890’s stray cats (and no doubt many people’s pet cats) were captured in cities, crated up and sent by railway to country areas where farmers bought them for 6 pence each and released them on their properties. Rabbits are rodents, and evolution has assured that cats are “hardwired” to eat rodents. Cats will not eat wildlife if they can catch rodents. Cats will kill prey to feed themselves or their kittens. They do not kill for sport; otherwise they would simply destroy their food source. Even the one in thousand cats designated as “super hunters”, think that they are providing for their human family, when they bring home prey.
People, who understandably become upset when a pet cat kills a native bird, must remember that even when cats are employed to destroy a species they can never wipe it out. The fear that pet cats will destroy suburban wildlife is illogical. Cats have had plenty of opportunity to do so in the past two hundred years and this has not happened. Catspaw endorses pet cat confinement at night and, although a minority of cats are bird hunters, proven bird hunters should wear a “cat bib” when outside, which does no harm to the cat, but prevents it from capturing birds. Catspaw is attempting to strike a rational compromise between cats’ natures and the feelings of people.
What then is destroying wildlife? Scientific report after scientific report say the same thing habitat destruction ie agriculture, housing, mining, roads etc., in other words, the activities of human beings.
This article is only meant as a brief outline. For more detailed information go to catspaw dot org (link broken so URL removed Oct 2012.