Australian government must address a host of issues when it comes to controlling feral cats

This blog is part two of a two-part series on controlling feral cat populations and our relationship with wildlife in Australia. Read the previous blog here.

When it comes to addressing the feral cat issue in Australia, we must ensure that any long-term solution needs to be self-sustaining.

This is why some have called for the reintroduction of natural top order predators, such as dingoes and Tasmanian devils. It’s believed such predators may hunt cats, or at least compete with them for space, lessening their impact. However, reintroducing dingoes in particular, is highly controversial, especially with livestock owners who worry about the impacts dingo predation would have on their stock.

However, if we’re considering spending millions of dollars on culling cats, might not some of that money be better spent reintroducing dingoes and setting up a compensation fund for affected livestock owners? Similar schemes have operated in the US where wolves have been reintroduced, to bring farmers onboard.

Other research has shown that wild cat numbers are largely dependent on the populations of another invasive species, rabbits. Therefore, reducing rabbit numbers may be an effective way of naturally bringing down cat numbers. On the other hand, research in Western Australia showed that just focusing on rabbits alone led to cats switching their prey to native wildlife, so creating further problems.  It just goes to illustrate how there are no straightforward solutions.

It is a shame that the federal government’s new Threatened Species Strategy gives such prominence to a target that measure its impact by counting the number of cats killed.

The target might make for good ‘war on cats’ headlines in our soundbite hungry media but it takes attention away from the targets in the strategy that really count – the ones that measure whether the conservation status of threatened species are actually improving. Meeting those targets will depend on a lot more than just killing cats.

The focus on killing cats highlights a particular curiosity that seems to afflict us as humans, particularly governments. We are always looking to try and control animals when it is in fact far easier to control human behaviour. There is at least a recognition of this in the Threatened Species Strategy which touches on the subject of responsible cat ownership, though the extent to which formerly domestic cats supplement wild cat populations is not known.

READ: Australia’s Threatened Species Strategy promises big, but impact depends on execution

However, there are other forms of human behaviour that are far more pressing to address if we truly want to protect our native wildlife, not least the continued large scale clearing of native wildlife habitat for infrastructure, forestry, mining, agriculture, and commercial and residential developments. We also need to look at inappropriate fire management regimes, which can also leave native wildlife more vulnerable to predation by invasive species.

It seems cats offer a convenient distraction from the necessary mind shift required by governments to halt approvals of damaging land clearing that is destroying, degrading and fragmenting native wildlife habitat.

Whatever you think of Brigitte Bardot’s intervention on cats, she was right to point out Australia’s poor record on killing animals more generally. Australia seems all too ready to leap to culling as a solution, and not just for invasive species. Thousands of native animals are legally killed in Australia every year (see here for recent figures just for Victoria). Some are killed as ‘pests’, others such as kangaroos, targeted commercially – a situation that baffles most foreigners when they see us killing national icons.

Ultimately, we need to change the conversation in this country about our relationship with our landscape and its animals. Addressing invasive species has to be a part of that but it’s also urgent that we look at human behaviour. As uncomfortable as it is to point the finger at ourselves, we bear the responsibility for the plight of Australia’s wildlife. It’s time we changed our attitudes and approach to come up with the long-term solutions that will ensure our unique wildlife remain for generations to come.

--MC

 

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