House cats make great companions who provide cuddles and keep mice and bugs at bay, but their alley cat counterparts are a different story. And in Australia, the problem has gone feral.
For decades, Australian conservationists have struggled to figure out how to handle feral cats and their never-ending hunt for birds and small mammals. Some say the cats have even caused several endangered species to go extinct in the last few centuries. Now, a new study published this week in Biological Conservation has found that feral cats cover nearly all of Australia—posing a major problem for the continent’s native and threatened wildlife.
Before cats were brought to Australia by British colonists about 200 years ago, the land down under had never seen so much as a fluffy kitten toe. Unfortunately, their companionship and predilection for pest control quickly got out of hand.
"At the moment feral cats are undermining the efforts of conservation managers and threatened species recovery teams across Australia,” University of Queensland researcher Sarah Legge, who led this latest study, says in a statement. "It is this difficulty which is pushing conservation managers into expensive, last resort conservation options like creating predator free fenced areas and establishing populations on predator-free islands.”
According the new research, which involved more than 40 scientists combing through 100 different studies, feral cats can be found in 99.8 percent of Australia. Save for a few fenced-in locations where invasive predators like cats and foxes were eradicated in to protect local wildlife, the feral felines can be found just about everywhere. Depending on how much prey is available, feral cat populations can fluctuate between about 2.1 million to 6.3 million, with about one cat for every 1.5 square miles, Calla Wahlquist reports for The Guardian.
While that 0.2 percent of territory has been made cat-free, installing fences to keep the cats out is a costly solution and banning pet cats from going outdoors doesn’t address the issue. As the scope of the environmental havoc wreaked by feral cats has become clearer, some conservationists say it might be time to take more serious steps.
“No one likes the idea of killing cats," Pete Marra, head of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center writes in his book, Cat Wars. "But sometimes, it is necessary.”
In recent years, conservationists and government officials have begun floating the idea of culling feral cats in order to protect vulnerable wildlife. The creatures can be surprisingly destructive. As Rachel Gross reported for Smithsonian.com in September, a cat named Tibbles was responsible for "single-pawedly" sending New Zealand’s Stephens Island wren into extinction in the late 1890s. For those struggling to prevent the same fate from falling on even more of Australia’s wildlife, desperate times call for desperate measures.
"The federal government has a target of culling 2 million cats over five years. That's very good, it's very ambitious," Legge tells Tracey Ferrier for the Australian Associated Press. "But it's going to be very important to target cat culling to achieve the greatest benefit for wildlife. If you get rid of cats on larger islands, you can then stop their reintroduction with biosecurity measures, and then you have a big area that's safe for wildlife."
It’s not a pretty solution, and animal rights groups have long opposed culling, claiming that the practice doesn’t aid in conservation efforts. Cats have a relatively low population density and prefer live prey over stationary bait, which makes culling them a challenge, Wahlquist reports. Others have suggested rebuilding dense underbrush, which would give small mammals more cover to hide, while drawing back dingo populations to prey on the cats—though that could put ranchers’ livestock at greater risk as well.
While the means for ridding Australia of its cat problem may still be up for debate, this seems like one case with no good answer in sight.