The Australian Continent Is Now Completely Covered With Feral Cats

Feral cats, which have directly contributed to the decline and extinction of numerous native Australian species, are more widespread across the continent than internet coverage. . (Photo: Mag/flickr)

A land of staggering beauty, Australia is also home to a remarkably wide variety of critters that aren’t exactly doing any favors for the national tourism board: crocodile-eating pythons, baby-snatching canids, angry nightmare birds, and at least one native species with the word “death” in its name. Wildlife, it would seem, is deadlier and infinitely more ferocious Down Under than on other continents.

However, it’s not Australia’s more fearsome beasts that regularly cause conservationists to lose sleep. It’s the cute, seemingly benign interlopers — the red fox, the rabbit and the regular old kitty cat — that wreak the worst havoc on native wildlife and vulnerable natural habitats.

For lovers of all things feline, the simple fact that cats — specifically, feral cats — are one of the most, if not the most, destructive animal in a county positively teeming with venomous, plus-sized snakes and spiders doesn’t quite register. How in the world could domestic cats, feral or not, be so maligned? And how widespread could Australia’s feral cat epidemic possibly be in a country as vast and rugged as Australia?

Pretty darn widespread.

According to a new report published in the journal Biological Conservation, feral cats cover a staggering 99.8 percent of Australian landmass with a density of 1 cat per every square kilometer. As reported by The Guardian, that tiny sliver of cat-free land is limited to a small handful of islands, some of which previously had feral cat populations until they were eradicated. Sixteen fenced-in mainland reserves, all of which have undertaken extensive measures to keep feral cats and other predators out, also play into the figure.

The report, which brings together data pulled from 100 different studies led by a team 40 leading environmental scientists, estimates the total number of feral cats in Australia to be between 2.1 and 6.3 million — not nearly as many as previously estimated. Population estimates, which fluctuate depending on the availability of prey, only include true feral cats and not typical stray alley cats that have been socialized to people.

Just because this figure is markedly lower than earlier estimates of 20 million doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good thing. In fact, it’s alarming. Aussie scientists have long recognized the threat that feral cats pose, particularly their direct contribution to the decline and extinction of dozens of indigenous species including the bilby, a desert-dwelling marsupial, and the numbat, a curious, diurnal creature that could best be described as the adorable lovechild of a squirrel and an anteater. If anything, the lower numbers have experts worried about what it would like if there really were 20 million feral cats across Australia as was previously believed. The damage done by a population more than half of that figure is devastating enough.

“It just underlines how potent cats are for Australian wildlife because it really doesn’t take many cats to have a significant negative effect,” Dr. Sarah Legge, a researcher at the University of Queensland, explains to The Guardian.

Aside from Antarctica, Australia is the only continent on Earth with native wildlife to evolve in a cat-free manner. In turn, native wildlife that has existed for centuries without the threat of feline killing machines is rendered even more vulnerable. While the origin story of cats in Australia sometimes varies, it’s most commonly believed — and backed by an extensive study conducted in 2015 — that domestic cats first arrived on the continent in the early to mid 19th century aboard European ships. Of course, these early Aussie kitties weren’t nefarious in the least. Just like the beloved fur ball that may be curled up to you right now, they arrived as household pets — that is, pets with a highly convenient knack for pest control.

It didn’t take long for stray — or “homeless” — cats to multiple in Australia’s growing coastal population hubs and, from there, feral cats followed, rapidly spreading across the continent to the vast and sparsely populated inland areas — the Australian Outback. And to be clear, feral cats aren’t wild cats. From a scientific standpoint, the millions of cats responsible for hunting and killing an average of seven animals — birds, rodents, small marsupials, etc. — apiece each and every day across Australia are domestic cats through and through. However, their complete lack of — or very sporadic — interaction with humans causes them to exhibit wild behaviors.

Numbat, Perth Zoo
The numbat, a petite and pouch-less marsupial also known as the banded anteater, is an endangered species. As Australia's feral cat population grows, the numbat's numbers have dwindled to precarious levels. (Photo: dilettantiquity/flickr)

Down Under: Where feral cats are more widespread than the internet

As many media outlets have pointed out, feral cats enjoy more widespread coverage in Australia than the internet. Roughly 85.1 of the country has access to the internet, a portal from which to salivate over pictures of adorable baby moggies and read trend stories about unabashed male cat lovers.

So where exactly in Australia are feral cat populations the most dense?

According to the new findings, Australia’s feral cat densities are highest on small islands that have yet to eradicate existing populations. Feral cats Down Under can be found in pretty much every type of habitat, no matter how extreme, although they do prefer inland areas with minimal rainfall over damper coastal regions. To the surprise of researchers, it was also found in many cases that feral cat densities were the same both inside and outside of established Australian conservation reserves like national parks that champion native species but, evidently, aren’t doing enough to keep predatory invasive species like cats out.

Feral cats are also found in great numbers in Australian cities where they live amongst humans while having little or no interaction with them. The density of feral cats in urbanized areas is thought to be 30 times greater than in undeveloped areas where they have adapted over time to impossibly harsh conditions.

Map of feral cat distribution in Australia
Map of feral cat distribution in Australia. (Photo: Department of Energy & Environment)

Graphic: Department of Energy & Environment

"At the moment feral cats are undermining the efforts of conservation managers and threatened species recovery teams across Australia," Legge says in a press release. "As well as preying on the threatened species that occur in and near urban areas, these urban feral cats may provide a source of feral cats to bushland areas."

The report’s key takeaway — a fewer number of feral cats cover a greater area of Australia than previously believed — has prompted scientists to continue to push for quick, effective and humane means of mass eradication. Gregory Andrews, Australia’s inaugural Threatened Species Commissioner with the Department of Environment and Energy, notes that the report ““reaffirms the importance of ambitious targets to cull feral cats.”

Andrews, a former diplomat whose position entails raising “awareness and support for Australia’s fight against extinction,” adds: “This new science shows that the density of feral cats in Australia is lower than it is in North America and Europe, and yet feral cats have been devastating for our wildlife.”

A feral cat in Australia
This little guy, one of over 2 million, is enemy number one when it comes to protecting the roughly 400 species that are considered endangered or vulnerable in Australia. (Photo: Aidan/flickr)

Waging war against a difficult to eradicate invasive species

In 2015, former environment minister Greg Hunt announced an ambitious plot to eradicate 2 million cats over a five-year span — a sizable dent that would prove nothing but beneficial to Australia’s dwindling native wildlife, which, above all other threats including habitat loss, has suffered the most at the paws of feral cats.

While scientists and the Australia's wildlife conservation community largely embraced Hunt’s plan of attack, numerous animal activists lambasted the government’s so-car “war on feral cats." Vocal opponents of the feral cat control scheme include Brigitte Bardot and (non-Aussie) singer-songwriter Morrissey, who referred to the cats in question as being “2 million smaller versions of Cecil the Lion.”

In response, Andrews wrote an open letter to the plan’s fired-up detractors, noting that feral cats have served as a “major contributor” to the extinction of at least 27 native animals — “delightful creatures, rich in importance in Australian indigenous culture, and formerly playing important roles in the ecology of our country.” Andrews adds: “We don’t want to lose any more species like these.”

Although the government scheme to rid the country of its feral cats is largely a poison-and-trap kind of affair, the Guardian reports that conservationists have proposed various alternative population-reduction ideas including rebuilding natural habitats to give small marsupials — a favorite supper of feral cats — the upper hand with additional escape routes and more hiding spots. One much touted plan would actually involve upping the number of Australia’s iconic wild dog, the dingo, in feral cat-heavy areas that are also shared with vulnerable species.

Dingoes wouldn’t necessarily terrorize the cats and drive them away as dogs are wont to do. An apex predator, Dingoes would kill and eat the invasive feral cats (and, potentially, cattle, which is the main drawback of this approach). This, in turn, would indirectly protect at-risk native animals that are normally preyed on by both dingoes and feral cats. After all, if you’re at the top of the food chain, why bother with the small stuff when there are literally millions of large fellow predators for the immediate taking?

In urban areas where dingoes aren't exactly a practical deterrent, Australian taxpayers were somewhat shocked to recently learn that fried chicken, KFC in particular, makes for superb feral cat bait. As reported by The Guardian, an investigation into the use of taxpayer-funded credit cards amongst the staff of Parks Victoria revealed $260 AUD spent on fried chicken at a single KFC location over a four-month period. While the spending managed to raise some no doubt envious eyebrows, an unnamed Parks Victoria staff member explained "KFC is widely known to be the most effective bait for luring feral cats."

"Fried chicken is included in the national guidelines for trapping feral cats and is used due to its scent and prolonged freshness,” vouched Alan Robley, a scientist at the the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research in Melbourne.