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Feral Cats - Pussy Galore

Words David Cook

 

Not the James Bond villain, but a much more dangerous enemy, this time to Australia’s small animal life.

In May 2011, when Lake Eyre was in the midst of its last major flooding episode, my wife and I took a trip up the Oodnadatta Track. We went as far as William Creek, then out to Halligan Bay on the Lake, back to Maree and up the Birdsville Track and into south-western Queensland, following the course of the Cooper Creek and the flooding waters that were feeding into Central Australia. In May 2019, we again travelled up the Oodnadatta Track, again taking in Halligan Bay but this time including Muloorina Station at South Lake Eyre, and we noted some distinct shifts had occurred in those eight years.

In 2011, we set up in the camping ground at William Creek and to our delight, we discovered that there were small animals running around at night, and if we sprinkled crumbs of bread or biscuits on the ground they would come in numbers and hop around enthusiastically under our awning. They were brush-tailed rabbit rats (as I’ve lately discovered) and must have been present in such numbers that we, who were camped well away from the boundaries of the campground and with lights on and people moving about, still had plenty of them to observe.

Despite our interactions with these small critters, the biggest obstacle appeared to be large stalking birds that prowled the campground late at night looking to feed on them.

On our 2019 trip, I looked forward to renewing my acquaintance with these little fellas, but we could find none. Not one, no matter how many crumbs I sprinkled around. And the stalking birds were gone, too.

This mirrored our experience at Muloorina, where we camped on the long man-made billabong, which is fed by the outflow from an artesian well. This site is lush, full of plants, and as an island of food and water in a parched desert, should have been abundant with life. But aside from two brolgas which we saw fly over and handfuls of ducks paddling warily out on the water’s surface, the only signs of life were several feral cats which we saw stalking surreptitiously from tree to tree in the surrounding scrub, and occasional patches of feathers indicating where some small bird had met its end.

I suspect that the differences in animal populations which we observed were the result of the spread or growth of feral cat populations.

Feral cats are a major plague on Australian native animals. They kill tens of millions of native animals every night — note, every single night — tens of millions! They are credited with the extinction of at least 20 species of native animals and are driving factors in the decline and likely approaching extinction of as many as 140 other species. They consume any of 400 different species, including rodents, marsupials, reptiles, frogs and birds, depending on local availability, and will tackle animals up to the size of wallabies and smaller kangaroos.

The feral cat population in Australia is estimated at between an optimistic two million to six million, and the Federal Government is undertaking a program to kill off at least two million of them by dropping poisoned sausages, called Eradicat, through large areas of the country — the sausages are spread by hand or from planes. These were developed in Western Australia and contain a poison called 1080, which is sodium monofluoroacetate. They are made principally from kangaroo meat and chicken fat, seasoned with various herbs and spices to make them attractive to the cats, and laced with the 1080. The sausages’ developer, David Algar PhD, the principal research scientist for Western Australia, studied commercially sold cat food to determine the preferred flavours. This work has earned him the nickname ‘Dr Death’.

Sodium monofluoroacetate, the principal component of 1080, is a naturally occurring compound found in native Gastrolobium pea plants and can now be synthetically manufactured. As Australia’s native animals have evolved alongside the Gastrolobium plants they have a natural immunity to the poison, while introduced animals such as cats — and domestic dogs and foxes — find it lethal.

The poison is embedded in a small pellet in the centre of the sausage, so that any native animal which gives the meat a testing nibble, will be unlikely to get any of the 1080 anyway. Cats tend to feed ravenously, gulping their food rapidly in large chunks, so are likely to take up the pellet, while native carnivores tend to be more cautious feeders and miss the pellet.

Until the development of the Eradicat sausages, the principal methods of control have been by shooting or trapping.

Wild dogs (as distinct from dingoes) and foxes are also responsible for native animal deaths.



The cats are believed to have first been introduced to Australia by European explorers, who sustained small numbers of them to control populations of rats and other vermin on their ships, but today they continue to spread out from our ever-growing population areas as they escape from settlements or even are released, especially at night, from domestic control in their owners’ homes.

One of the issues with the eradication of feral cats is that their loss appears to lead to an explosion of rabbit populations. This occurred on Macquarie Island a number of years ago when feral cats were eradicated.

The government program to eradicate feral cats has drawn alarmed reports overseas, where people view their domestic moggies as among their best friends, but, as a statement from the Western Australian government statement says, “Without fox and feral cat baiting, the native species … could be lost forever, or only found in small, fenced reserves.”

When you have a unique and fragile environment that is already being stressed by accelerating climate change and the intrusion into and clearing of much of the landscape by humans, the choices seem few and far between when it comes to how you protect your native fauna.

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