Brigitte Bardot focuses world’s stare on Australia’s unique relationship with cats and wildlife

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

When federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt declared war on feral cats recently, he probably wasn’t expecting to hear from Brigitte Bardot. It seems the Minister’s plan to kill two million cats, along with Australia’s general record on killing animals, has attracted her ire.

"This animal genocide is inhumane and ridiculous. In addition to being cruel, killing these cats is absolutely useless since the rest of them will keep breeding," Bardot said in the open letter to Mr Hunt.

As someone who grew up with cats as pets and experienced first-hand the joy they bring, the killing of two million cats is disconcerting.

However, there is no denying the impact of feral cats on native wildlife in Australia. Some 20 of the 30 species Australia has lost to extinction since European settlement began can be attributed, at least in part, to cats.

Invasive species, including cats, are a problem worldwide. But Australia’s unique fauna and its evolution over a long period separate from the rest of the world, plus the removal of natural top order predators from Australian ecosystems by humans, seem to have left Australian wildlife particularly vulnerable.

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

Bardot suggests sterilisation as an alternative to culling. In smaller scale projects, including community-led projects, this has proved successful to address wild cat and dog populations. However, the dominant view in Australia so far seems to suggest this would not be feasible over the large scale required to successfully reduce the impact of wild cats.

Whatever approach is taken, it cannot be done in isolation. Any strategy to address invasive species must be part of a wider strategy that will ensure solutions are sustainable in long-term. It shouldn’t just address the impacts of one species but rather look at how they interact with other species and the broader landscape and ecosystems as a whole.

Indeed, relying on culling alone can even boost populations, not diminish them.

Any decision to kill animals, particularly on such a large scale, is bound to be an emotive issue.

Whether native or invasive, all animals are sentient beings that we have a responsibility to treat humanely, so any decision to cull:

  1. must be a last resort;
  2. must be conducted humanely; and
  3. must be part of a long-term solution that will be effective and sustainable, as there are budgetary as well as ethical concerns.

There remain question marks over all of these criteria, particularly the latter two.

While cat culling has been effective in protecting native wildlife in island communities, both in the literal sense of offshore islands and in large-scale fenced ‘island’ enclosures on the mainland, it remains to be seen whether it is an effective strategy out in the open in mainland Australia.

The Government’s own documents suggest it would never be possible to rid mainland Australia of feral cats. Even when cats are culled on island communities, research has shown it may lead to problems from other predators cats control, like rats. So culling in isolation cannot be the answer and whether it can work over a large scale and be effective over time are much bigger questions.

--MC

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