Australia Declares 'War on Cats'

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A feral cat walks along the banks of Cooper Creek, South Australia. John Carnemolla/Shutterstock

Australia is home to some of the most dangerous animals in the world, and the federal government has trained its sights on one particular predator that it claims is the country's single biggest threat to native species: cats.

Since 2015, the government has been working on its goal to kill 2 million feral cats that threaten the country's indigenous wildlife. Recently, they've turned to deadly sausages made of kangaroo meat, chicken fat and poison to kill the cats, The New York Times reports. The self-imposed deadline is 2020.

As part of what Gregory Andrews, Australia's first threatened species commissioner, calls "a war on cats," Australia instituted "24-hour containment requirements for domestic cats in 2015." The project requires pet cats in designated containment areas to be allowed outside only on a leash or in an enclosure.

The idea isn't a new one. In 2005, 12 suburbs in the Australian capital of Canberra were declared cat-containment areas because of their proximity to nature reserves, and pet cats must be kept indoors 24 hours a day. (There's a similar situation in Key Largo, Florida, where cat owners are advised to keep their pets indoors because cats found prowling in a nearby wildlife refuge will be trapped and taken to a shelter.)

Species at risk

Feral cats have threatened 22 species in Australia including wombats. Martin Pelanek/Shutterstock

Colonists introduced cats to the continent in the 18th century, and today Australia has 20 million to 30 million feral felines that scientists say are the reason Australia has seen the extinction of more mammals than any other nation.

"Each cat kills between three and 20 native animals a day," Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "So if you assume four animals a day, that's carnage of 80 million native animals a day."

Species at risk include the hairy-nosed wombat, the northern quoll and the boobook, an owl species. Researchers estimate that feral cats have led directly to the extinction of at least 22 of Australia's species.

The government is combating its feral cat problem through several means. Part of the initiative involves community monitoring of feral cats, as well as trapping programs.

However, $3.6 million — about half of the plan's budget — is dedicated to eradicating the animals. In addition to poison bait, the Australian government has used detector dogs and shooting to eliminate the animals. According to the Times, The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology estimated that 211,560 cats were killed during the first 12 months of the project.

Making headlines

feral kittens in Australia
Feral kittens perch in a hollow tree on Cooper Creek in South Australia. John Carnemolla/Shutterstock

The plan has drawn criticism from cat lovers across the globe, with more than 160,000 signatures on half a dozen online petitions asking Australia to spare the cats, reports the Times.

"The $6 million you plan to spend in destroying these animals would be much better spent in setting up a large-scale sterilization campaign," French actress Brigitte Bardot wrote in an open letter to Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Singer Morrissey called the plan "idiocy," saying it was like killing 2 million "smaller versions of Cecil the lion," reports The Guardian.

Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, has called the program "commendable;" however, she says it fails to address habitat loss, which is an even greater threat to vulnerable species.

"The strategy ... fails to meaningfully address the biggest threat to threatened species and ecological communities — the loss and fragmentation of habitat — either through investment in new protected areas or by safeguarding existing critical places," she told The Guardian.

This isn't the first time feral cats have made headlines in this part of the world.

In 2013, economist Gareth Morgan — who refers to cats as "natural born killers" — launched a website calling for the eradication of cats in New Zealand, a country where feral cats have contributed to the extinction of nine native bird species.