In a controversial move to preserve native fauna, the Australian government is using poisoned sausages to kill 2 million feral cats by 2020. The plan to “cull” 2 million feral cats was set into motion in 2015, and has faced much controversy and criticism. Most recently, the government has settled on sausages stuffed with a potent poison containing the active ingredient sodium fluoroacetate, known as “1080.” The sausages are made of a blend of kangaroo meat, chicken, and other spices designed to appeal to feral cats.
Marked as "invasive predators," feral cats in the wilds of Australia kill hundreds of millions of native birds, mammals, and reptiles each year. Cats arrived with European settlers in the 1700s and are thus classified as an invasive species, one that has apparently been wreaking havoc on native wildlife.
According to the New York Times, feral cat overpopulation has already led to the extinction of many native species; 34 mammal species found only in Australia have vanished. The Times wrote that cats are thought to be directly responsible for 22 of those extinctions.
While these numbers are certainly devastating, there are Australian scientists who question the basis of targeting 2 million feral cats. The scientists, in part, say the government had not given a clear metric or scientific reason for that number.
They had failed to indicate how, or whether, the cull would actually impact the feral cat population - as feral cats reproduce at very rapid rates. They also did not necessarily state how and whether the culling of 2 million feral cats would actually increase the populations of endangered species. Estimates of the number of feral cats actually living in Australia vary widely.
The researchers published a paper in the journal Conservation Letters, in which they questioned the 2 million target:
“The focus on killing cats runs the risk of distracting attention away from other threats to biodiversity, most prominent of which is widespread, ongoing habitat loss, which has been largely overlooked in the Threatened Species Strategy.” While feral cats are a big issue, according to CNN, the government has focused heavily on them over more “politically sensitive” issues like habitat loss caused by urban expansion, logging, and mining.
The researchers continued in their published paper: "The culling target [of 2 million] is a highly visible symbol of a broader campaign around feral cat research and management in Australia, rather than a direct indicator of conservation action and success. We are concerned that progress toward the 2 million target could be misinterpreted as progress toward conserving threatened species when the link between the two is not clear.”
Similarly, Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, called the program "commendable;" however, she also states 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 plan to cull cats not only in the hundreds of thousands, but in the millions, is why programs like Trap, Netuer, Release are important to stopping feral cat overpopulation over time. TNR programs reduce the number of feral kittens being born and work to prevent overpopulation.
What is TNR?
Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a proven humane method to spay or neuter unaltered feral cats by safely trapping them, then returning them to the location where they were picked up.
- Trap: All feral cats in a colony, or as many as possible, are humanely trapped.
- Neuter: The trapped cats are taken to an animal or veterinary clinic to be spayed or neutered, receive vaccinations, and are sometimes marked by eartipping to let people know that the cat has been through the TNR process.
- Return: Healthy adult feral cats are returned to their outdoor homes, where their lives are greatly improved without the strains of mating behaviors (aggression, fighting) and pregnancy. Stray cats and kittens that are socialized to humans are adopted into homes.