It’s time cats were recognized as a major environmental issue

It’s time cats were recognized as a major environmental issue

The Macquarie Island parakeet was, by all accounts, an elegant parrot endemic to the island off southern Tasmania that shared its name. We will never really know, because the last of its species was seen in the 1880s.

The lesser bilby inhabited warmer climes – it was found predominantly in the sandy deserts of central Australia. A charismatic but fierce little marsupial, it joined the list of extinct Australian species more recently, with the last known remnants found in a wedge-tailed eagle nest in the late 1960s.

While very different animals from habitats separated by thousands of kilometres, they shared a common enemy that was primarily responsible for their extinction: the feral cat. Both are now consigned to history, but their killer lives on, wreaking havoc for so many Australian species.

The recently released State of the Environment report painted a bleak picture of the environmental challenges facing Australia. Much of the public commentary focused, understandably, on two of the greatest threats to our nation’s extraordinary biodiversity – land clearing and habitat loss along with the growing impact of climate change.

Less was said, however, about the damage being caused by introduced predators like the cat, despite the report identifying its role in the extinction of 30 mammal species since 1788. While precise numbers vary, the cat has been a major factor in the loss of the overwhelming number of mammals lost along with many bird species.

It’s time we recognised cats and their impact on our environment as a major national issue. We need to confront the toll taken by feral cats, but also have an upfront conversation about pet cats and their own devastating hunting practices.

While it’s impossible to do precise head count, scientists estimate Australia is home to 6.5 million cats. Most are domestic pets, but approximately 2.8 million are feral cats living in the wild.

Their hunting prowess is truly staggering. The State of the Environment report found they kill up to 2.4 billion animals each year – mostly native species. That’s right – over 2 billion animals in a single year.

The impact of cats was the subject of a parliamentary committee inquiry I helped instigate in the last term of parliament. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service told the committee that “for our mammal fauna, feral cats and foxes are identified as the greatest threat, along with changed fire regimes.”

We also heard that cats are a recognised threat to 74 mammal species, 40 bird species, 21 reptiles and 4 amphibian species.

So how to tame the cat? Sadly, the answer is not easy. The starting point has to be a significantly expanded national effort that harnesses the efforts of all three levels of government.

Feral cat eradication is important and new technologies to achieve this are being developed, but with cats found across 99% of the Australian landmass, they do not provide a complete answer. They are valuable tools, though, in some geographic areas and at least give some native animals a chance.

In the long term, work is being done on gene drive (genome editing) technologies which may provide a solution. But even if they do work – and there are a mountain of ethical issues involved – they are a long way off.

In the shorter term, our best effort is massively expanding the network of predator-free fenced conservation reserves and creating safe havens on islands for species at immediate threat. This is an expensive option, because of the upfront costs of installing feral-proof fencing at scale, but has been shown to work. Leading the charge have been private philanthropic organisations like the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and their efforts have been increasingly matched by government projects.

In NSW, for example, the National Parks and Wildlife Service is looking to double the number of predator-free reserves, and their project at Yathong will see a 40,000 hectare reserve created – the largest in Australia, and four times larger than any other in the state.

Most of these reserves are located in remote areas, but some can be seen closer to our urban centres. Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary in Canberra is a good example. On a nocturnal visit, I had the exciting opportunity of seeing the rare eastern quoll, which was reintroduced to the mainland at the Reserve.

The parliamentary committee recommended a national “Project Noah” to resource, expand and coordinate these efforts. For many species, predator-proof sanctuaries might be their only hope.

Much harder is the task for our society to respond to the threats posed by our pet cats, and I suspect governments are shy to responding to this challenge because of the potential political blowback. So many Australians enjoy the companionship of their pets, and many find it hard to accept their own cute moggie could be a killer. It’s always someone else’s cat that might be a problem.

Yet the reality is that no matter how pampered, well-fed and domesticated, our pet cats do not lose their hunting extinct. In fact domestic cats are attributed with killing over one million native animals a day, primarily in urban environments where our native species already face a multitude of other challenges.

And we are not just talking about abundant native animals – urban areas are home to many threatened bird species that are hunted by cats.

We all have to take some responsibility for pets in our care. In the case of cats, the obvious starting point – if we genuinely care about our native wildlife – is to ensure cats are not free to roam at night. While cats will hunt at any time of the day, their stealth is more effective in the dark. Walking in my own inner-city suburb at night, I am always surprised by just how many cats are given free rein.

It’s also a no-brainer that kittens should be desexed and the patchwork of state laws around the country should be updated to ensure this is a mandatory requirement.

Improving public education campaigns might help, but ultimately our local councils should be assessing whether cat curfews should be instituted, as they have in some areas – but not widely. At the very least, such curfews should be in place in areas surrounding bushland reserves.

Cats are but one of the many predatory and invasive species we have introduced into this country, but they are among the most devastating. We can all play our part in mitigating their impact and we must if we are serious about preventing more extinctions of our precious native wildlife.

This article by Trent Zimmerman was first published by The Guardian on 12 August 2022. Lead Image: ‘The reality is no matter how pampered, well-fed and domesticated, our pet cats do not lose their hunting instinct’ says Trent Zimmerman. Photograph: Enio DePaz/Getty Images/iStockphoto.

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