Kangaroo Island feral cats given their marching orders

The ABC recently reported that an island off the coast of South Australia has embarked on an ambitious plan to eradicate all cats within the next 15 years. Although Kangaroo Island is more widely known for its large populations of koalas, seals, penguins and beautiful coastlines, the island is now set to become cat free. The result, no doubt, will be an increase in the population of small native animals to a level rarely seen on the mainland.

Although feral cats are enemy number one, pet cats are destined to become obsolete with the phase out of pet cat ownership on the island. Current cat lovers will be able to keep their beloved pets, but once the cats pass away, they will not be allowed to replace them with a new feline furry friend. Kangaroo Island Mayor Peter Clements insists that they need to reach a point where there are no cats left on the island and that requires the culling of feral cats and the end of pet cats. Although the island already has some of the nation’s most stringent cat ownership bylaws, including mandatory registration, desexing and microchipping, a phase out of ownership over time will certainly be beneficial.

Kangaroo Island is the third largest island off the coast of Australia and it has an estimated feral cat population between 3000 and 5000. The Federal Environment Department will be funding this new eradication program on Kangaroo Island along with four other islands: Christmas, Bruny, French and Dirk Hartog. The first step in the process is to collect data on the location of feral cats and their habits. This will allow for future culling plans to be developed.

The feral cat project coordinator for the Kangaroo Island venture indicated feral cats on the island don’t have any predators or competitors for food due to the absence of foxes, rabbits and wild deer. This has allowed large populations of feral cats to take hold and as a result kill many native birds, penguins, small mammals and reptiles.

However, the predation of these animals is not the only issue caused by feral cats. They also have the ability to spread diseases. Feral cats can transmit toxoplasmosis and sarcosporidiosis to a range of animals. Common farm animals can be infected by both diseases and that has a serious impact on the island’s farmers. Toxoplasmosis infection can lead to reduced fertility, which affects the livestock production, while the effects of sarcosporidiosis cause cysts to develop in muscle tissue in livestock that would lead to a downgrading of the meat quality and price. Evidence from abattoir records on Kangaroo Island indicates that 70 per cent of the sheep meat produced on the island was impinged on by sarcosporidiosis.

Local farmers see Kangaroo Island feral cats as a big issue in terms of sheep production, causing significant losses, as well as damage to wildlife. Although livestock can live with toxoplasmosis infection, wildlife is very susceptible to the disease. Some Australian marsupials such as bandicoots can die within two to three weeks of contagion and other species such as tammar wallabies, koalas, wombats and several small dasyurids have also been confirmed fatal victims of the toxoplasmosis virus.

The culling of feral cats will be carried out using a range of tools. New-technology ‘grooming traps’ that squirt toxin onto passing cats will be trialled and detector dogs will be used to seek out feral cats in inaccessible areas to then allow the cats to be humanely killed. There is also a plan to build a barrier fence across the narrowest part of the island so feral cats can first be eradicated within a section of the island. Following this, successful eradication activities will then be moved and concentrated in the remaining area. Hopefully, the ambitions of the Kangaroo Island community will be fulfilled and we all can enjoy a cat-free island in 15 years’ time.

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