No respite in war on feral cats

By John Maxwell

Federal Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie has responded to the ongoing proliferation of petitions demanding an end to Australia’s feral cat cull, declaring the pests pose the single biggest threat to native wildlife and saying they’re to be found across 99.8 per cent of Australia.

“Feral cats have contributed to more than 20 mammal extinctions as well as threatening survival of at least another 124 native Australian animals at risk of extinction,” she said. “We are removing feral cats in areas which are important to the protection and recovery of threatened species in a way that’s humane, effective and justifiable.” In 2015, The Federal Government launched the campaign to eradicate two million feral cats by shooting, baiting and trapping by 2020 in a move to halt the steady march towards extinction of numerous small native animals.

That prompted an immediate outcry from cat lovers worldwide, particularly the US, with a wave of online petitions calling for a halt to the cat culling plan, many urging a program of trapping, neutering and returning (TNR) feral cats to the wild be adopted. Even animal-loving screen legend Brigitte Bardot fired off a letter. The outcry was more muted in Australia where the debate has been effectively framed in terms of the threat to native wildlife. Australians love their cats but also appreciate the country’s unique native animals and the threat posed by feral felines. Yet the petitions have continued, attracting signatories from around the world. Typical is the US-based Care2 organisation which features a petition launched by US Alley Cat Rescue saying the government-sanctioned killing of millions of cats in Australia was happening right now and must be stopped.

“Please sign to tell the Australian government that shooting, poisoning, trapping and bounty-killing outdoor cats is cruel and unacceptable,” it says. “This doesn't need to happen. Humane, non-lethal solutions like exclusionary fencing or traps for trap-neuter-return are just as available as guns and poisons.”

This petition has attracted more than 93,000 supporters, well on the way to its 100,000 target.

Another on, which allows anyone to start a petition on almost any topic, was launched in 2015 and attracted 8946 supporters. That featured a letter to then-PM Tony Abbott urging him to call a halt to “the inhumane, unethical culling of feral and un-owned cat populations in Australia” and to instead invest in TNR programs as “a proven method to humanely and ethically, greatly reduce the free-roaming cat populations permanently without the use of toxic baits, bullets and apps”.

Then-Commissioner for Threatened Species, Greg Andrews, responded saying TNR would simply return predators to the wild where they could keep killing native animals. “It would also be very resource intensive and costly which would divert resources from other activities needed in the fight against extinction for Australia’s 1800 threatened plants and animals,” he said. He estimated a cost of $1 billion for a national TNR program while the humane eradication of cats would produce a better result at a fraction of the cost.

Few if any of the protestors seem to have the slightest appreciation of the harm cats cause to native animals or the practical realities of feral animal control in a country the size of Australia. One thing many petitions have in common are pictures of cute cats and kittens, with the implication that no-one of right mind could possibly contemplate murdering such friendly animals. The petitions looked to have gained fresh impetus back in April following publication of a feature in the New York Times magazine headlined ‘Australia is deadly serious about killing millions of cats’.

The article was written by Jessica Camille Aguirre who travelled to Australia and talked to wildlife experts and others, producing a comprehensive and even-handed explanation of the program. But far from the callous murder implied by the petitions, Senator McKenzie said the basis for the policy was developed by the RSPCA to be humane, effective and justifiable. In particular, poison baits were only used under strict requirements set by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. “Cat baiting doesn’t harm the environment and regulations and independent scientific licensing ensure baiting programs are safe,” she said. So for all the signatures on all the petitions, are there any indications the government is set to bow to pressure from international cat lovers to end the cull? None whatsoever.

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