At the beginning of 2017 researchers revealed the most up-to-date estimate of the number of feral cats living in Australia. It turns out there are somewhere between 2.1 million and 6.3 million feral cats, with drought among the main causes for their population fluctuations. The researchers also concluded that feral cats in Australia can be found across 99.8 per cent of the country’s land area - they really are everywhere.
If those numbers aren’t shocking enough, a feral cat named Fang recently put the damage feral cats can do into perspective in a story by The Daily Telegraph. After being fixed with a tracking device, Fang, the three-year-old tomcat, was recorded devouring native lizards, birds and other small mammals during a 300km ‘killing spree’, which lasted more than four months. Fang was just one of 50 feral cats in the area that was tracked, with all of the cats managing similar hauls, including one cat that was seen taking a threatened brush-tailed rock-wallaby.
It’s not just the hunting that feral cats do which is having an impact on the environment though - there are also signs they are spreading diseases to other animals without lifting a paw. Research shows feral cats can transmit toxoplasmosis and sarcosporidiosis to a range of animals. Common farm animals can be infected by both diseases and this has a serious impact on farmers and their livestock. This is why plans to ban even domestic cats from Kangaroo Island in South Australia have been met with support, including understanding from domestic cat owners, who won’t be able to replace their pet cats once they die.
The SSAA is very supportive of the Australian Government’s decision to cull two million feral cats by 2020 and the Threatened Species Commissioner, Gregory Andrews, has expressed his commitment to help achieve this. Commissioner Andrews recently said farmers are not given enough credit for helping native animals and are the best placed people to deal with feral cats and foxes. He went on to explain that landowners are leading the way on pest control.
While Commissioner Andrews also acknowledges that habitat loss is a factor for native animal extinction, he believes pest animals, such as feral cats, are a greater threat. Commissioner Andrews’ sensible approach is refreshing, particularly compared to New South Wales MP Mark Pearson, from the Animal Justice Party, who said “cats roaming in the bush aren’t feral, but free-living and deserve equal consideration to the native wildlife they prey on”. One thing is for sure - if we keep letting feral cats drive other species to extinction, feral cats will be the only wildlife left to consider!
In more positive news, scientists are developing an implant that can be injected into native species to protect them from feral species. The implant is about the size of a grain of rice and is non-toxic to native animals, but deadly to cats. The idea is that if a feral cat eats a native animal with the implant, then the cat will also die. Researchers at the University of South Australia developed the implant using native plants, so even if the native animal isn’t eaten by a cat, the toxic implant is simply reintegrated into the environment. The project is currently crowdfunding to lift it off the ground.
While ground shooting remains one of the most humane and effective measures to combat feral cats, it is great to see several tools in the toolbox. Commissioner Andrews reinforced this last year, pointing out that ground shooting, when properly carried out, causes instantaneous death to the targeted species and is one of the most humane methods of reducing feral cats, even according to PestSmart and RSPCA guidelines. 2017 is looking like a promising year in the battle against feral cats.