Curiosity killed the feral cat

As recreational hunters, my son Rob and I focus heavily on wild dogs. Our success on properties in the Brisbane Valley area of South East Queensland has led to requests for help from other property owners who have felt the pain and experienced the grief of losing valued breeding stock and calves to these cruel canines.

As many fellow hunters will be aware, wild dogs are difficult to find and must always be taken with the first clean shot because, apart from the ethical implications, you are unlikely to gain a second shot at the same dog, ever.

We are always keen to learn more, especially about the technology that may help us to do better, and at the past SSAA SHOT Expo in Brisbane, we were talking to the experts. The team from Wolf Eyes was very knowledgeable about light spectrums and colors that a dog cannot see, which is handy to know when choosing spotlights and torches. That’s a science of its own and a topic for another story. We spoke to several other companies about thermal vision and had the chance to hold the latest to our eye. We can’t wait for prices to come down a bit there.

Over the past few years, through the use of trail cameras that email real-time images of photos as they are taken, Rob and I have discovered that feral cats and foxes can inhabit the same area as wild dogs. This is contrary to what we had previously believed. We had been of the opinion that the dogs killed the others when encountered, and perhaps they do in areas where they are competing for the same food. In the Brisbane Valley, cattle, calves and other animals are frequently cut down by cunning packs of wild dogs using terrible means to kill them. They then return for weeks, eating everything but a few large scattered bones and a bit of well-chewed hide. Our trail cameras have also helped to learn the timing of the return visits to carcasses by dogs and while not always consistent information, it has proved fatal for wild dogs on more than one occasion.

Rob and I love to go out west of the Great Divide where the climate is drier and the hot weather not as taxing as in the east. We often hunt in the Surat area on some properties where I have personally targeted foxes and pigs for more than 30 years. While many hunters ‘call it a day’ when the sun goes down, that is our favourite time. We carefully make the hunting vehicle ready, stow the rifles and ammunition safely, set up the spotlight, check the batteries on our Wolf Eyes Seal torches and walkie-talkies and head out for the night, often seeing the sun come up at the end of a night’s hunt. Thirty years ago, I would occasionally see a cat. Now we often take four or five a night, along with a few foxes.

While I can cope with a goanna eating bird eggs from a nest, which I have seen while walking through the lignum forest stalking feral pigs, it is a sad indictment on Australia to come across a feral cat up a tree waist-deep into a kookaburra’s nest trying to take the chicks. There are an estimated 18 million feral cats in Australia and for anyone who says taking one won’t make much difference, it made a difference for those chicks!

We all know that if we can attract the attention of a fox, it is possible to keep the spotlight on it and whistle it in for the one-shot kill. Cats are a different story, in that they are random in behaviour. Some will have a quick look and that’s the last eye-shine you will see, while others will run towards you thinking the fox whistle is an injured rabbit and an easy meal. What isn’t obvious is the number of cats that we drive past when spotting that don’t have a look or have looked at us before the light is on them. At a guess, I believe we only see one in five at the most, more if you are one of the lucky ones who can afford thermal vision.

I recall reading in a previous issue of Australian Shooter that the SSAA is encouraging member hunters to focus on feral cats and I can assure you that hunting them is as rewarding as hunting foxes. They are hard to shoot, but a little more plentiful, making them equally satisfying.

Rob and I have discovered a little secret that has ‘upped the ante’ which you won’t find surprising but may not have tried. And I will be bold enough to say it works every time, if only once on some cats. Picture this: you are driving along slowly, spotting for a fox and then you see some eye-shine - not as yellow as a fox, but white to green and very bright. By the time you have confirmed it’s a feral cat, you have possibly seen it for the last time. When you think about it, they have probably just feasted on one of the 29th mammal species they are contributing to make extinct, as the previous 28 species are ‘all gone’. So even the sound of an easy meal may not interest them. I’ll come back to this point later.

The Federal Government has a Threatened Species Commissioner and the first dot-point on the Commissioner’s action plan is tackling feral cats, with a target to cull two million by 2020. The wording of the documentation talks about ‘best practice’ baiting for cats and foxes, which sounds tidy. However I can’t see anything more humane than a ‘one-shot kill’, as promoted by the SSAA - a practice I’m sure we all believe in. There are a lot of us and we can make a difference.

An extract from the Department of the Environment’s Tackling Feral Cats action plan states: “The Mammal Action Plan 2012 and a report published in 2014 by the US National Academy of Sciences (Woinarski et al) ranked feral cats as the highest threat to Australia’s mammals. Their threat factor was more than double that of red foxes, the next highest threat, and triple that of habitat loss and fragmentation. Feral cats have contributed to the extinction of at least 28 mammal species since they first arrived in Australia, and they continue to wreak havoc. They imperil around a third of our threatened mammals, reptiles, frogs and birds.”

Wow, that’s not good! Now back to that cat you have just spotted. It’s out there, you know where, but just can’t see it in the spotlight, let alone through a scope. It is not looking, it has lost interest. Okay, time for the secret weapon. The tool we have all had with us but probably just didn’t think to try. So what is it? A ‘meow’. That’s right, not too loud or harsh, but try to make it sound realistic - you don’t want them to be frightened or intimidated. Just an ordinary, firm ‘meow’. Cats are wired to respond to ‘meows’ and will definitely look so you need to be ready. As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the (feral) cat”. So let’s put this into a real story.

On a recent trip to Surat, Rob and I had headed out from camp specifically hunting cats and foxes. Our rifles of choice for the night were my Sako Varmint .22-250 and Rob’s Tikka Hunter .243, both capable of despatching a cat or fox confidently out to the capability of our spotlight at around 300m. Occasionally, we might come across a wild boar and the .243 is quickly available for a well-placed shot.

We had not travelled very far when we came across our first cat at about 180m out. A couple of blows on the fox whistle and it was trotting in quite quickly but at the same time maintaining coverage and disappearing out of sight in the grass at every opportunity. Rob was on the light and carefully timing the fox whistle when the animal jumped onto a log, pausing for but a second in its stride for a better look at this bright thing, when a ‘crack’ rang out from the .22-250. My 55-grain Hornady Ballistic Tip easily found its mark and the tomcat dropped to the other side of the log.

The majority of cats we take are toms. They are attracted to a fox whistle more than the females and some of them are huge. The feral cat has a bigger, stronger body, an especially big rounded head, larger teeth and are usually the same coloring. In this stripy, tabby color, they are extremely well camouflaged and practically impossible to distinguish in the middle of a spotlight if they don’t give you some eye-shine. Occasionally, you will find a black or ginger feral, which are a little easier to follow in the scope (incidentally, did you know that ginger cats are almost always male?).

So, I went out to retrieve the cat and confirmed a well-placed shot. We swapped over and I was on the spotlight. Now competition isn’t everything to me, but it’s up there with oxygen. After another few minutes, I looked out to the far reaches of the light and received a brief eye-shine - it was a fox or a cat, so I hit the whistle. It looked again from more than 250m out. By this time, Rob had a very good rest across the Suzuki roof, scope adjusted to 18x and thumb on the safety ready to release. About every 10 whistles it would have a very quick glance for a fraction of a second but not long enough to confirm what it was or put it in the cross-hairs. While looking through the scope, Rob let out a firm ‘meow’ and we immediately had full eye-shine. I don’t know how long it would have looked because Rob identified it as a feral cat and dropped it like a bad habit in about two seconds - it was another long, well-placed shot.

While keeping the spotlight on the place where it fell, Rob grabbed the radio and his Seal torch and headed off on the trek to recover the cat. He disappeared into some gullies and then came up as I guided him by radio to the spot. A well-camouflaged feral cat in the grass can be difficult to find at the end of a long walk.

It is important to keep the light focused on the area and note a tree or other marker so as not to lose the spot. We have found small radios are invaluable to guide a person from the vehicle to the animal.

When Rob confirmed he had located the cat, I took a GPS reading at the Suzuki and headed on over myself. The big tom had been sitting looking down a rabbit warren and all we were doing with the whistle was annoying him. It took the ‘meow’ to grab his full attention. A second GPS reading confirmed the shot at 245m, which was not quite as far as we thought. That night we went on picking up our usual five or so cats and I took a pair of foxes just before the sun came up.

When approaching the typical property owner asking for permission to hunt on their property - good luck introducing yourself as a ‘feral cat hunter’. From my experience, they won’t even know there is a cat on their property. There will be other ferals that are more of a problem and of much greater interest to a grazier. While feral cat hunting through the night is personally rewarding and of enormous benefit to our wonderful country, Rob and I are always quick to talk to the grazier about the feral pigs we despatched during the day or the evidence of dogs and freshness of their tracks and where the ‘mother-of-millions’ (poisonous plants for cattle) are that we spotted. And then admit that you relieved him of some feral cats as well.

Finally, and on a more serious note, writing this story has made me think a little more deeply about the issue of feral cats and about why I do what I do for a hobby. I don’t have a particular dislike for wild dogs or even feral cats. In fact, most that I have seen have been magnificent examples of their species. I have a respect for their capability, which should never be underestimated, and I understand their need to kill and eat other animals to survive. However, their numbers are now clearly out of control and feral cats will be busy tonight killing an estimated 18 million native species of birds, mammals, frogs and insects across the country. And they will do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next.

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