Cats in the crosshairs: Australia deadly serious about cat culling

Feral felines are driving Australia’s native species towards extinction. Now a massive culling operation is underway to preserve what’s left of the wild. Jessica Camille Aguirre reports

In the deep winter weeks of last July, Shane Morse and Kevin Figliomeni nearly always got up before the sun rose. They awoke next to the remains of a campfire or, occasionally, in a roadside motel, and in the darkness before dawn they began unloading poisoned sausage from their refrigerated truck.

The sausage was for killing cats. One morning near the end of the season, Morse and Figliomeni left the Kalbarri Motor Hotel on the remote western coast of Australia, where they dined on steak and shellfish the night before, and drove along the squally coastline. They kept their eyes fixed to the sky. If it rained, there would be no baiting that day.

Morse and Figliomeni unpacked their boxes, filled with thousands of frozen sausages they produced at a factory south of Perth, according to a recipe developed by a man they jokingly called Dr Death.

It called for kangaroo meat, chicken fat and a mix of herbs and spices, along with a poison — called 1080 — derived from gastrolobium plants and highly lethal to animals such as cats, whose evolutionary paths did not require them to develop a tolerance to it. (The baits would also be lethal to other non-native species, such as foxes.)

As the sun brightened the brume, the baits began to defrost. By midmorning, when Morse helped load them into a wooden crate inside a light twin-engine propeller Beechcraft Baron, they were burnished with a sheen of oil and emitted a stomach-turning fetor. The airplane shot down the runway and lifted over the gently undulating hills of the sand plains that abut the Indian Ocean.

Rising over the mantle of ghostlike smoke bushes that carpeted the ground to the treeless horizon, the plane traced a route over the landscape, its bombardier dropping 50 poisoned sausages every square kilometre.

It banked over the deep cinnamon sandstone gorges carved by the Murchison River, which extends to the coastal delta, surveying the edge of one of earth’s driest, hottest continents, where 2m-6m feral cats roam.

As it flew, it charted the kind of path it had done dozens of times before, carpeting thousands of hectares of land with soft fingers of meat, laying down nearly half a million baits in the course of one month.

Dr Death, whose real name is Dave Algar and who is the principal research scientist in the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions for the state of Western Australia, told me that he began developing the recipe for the poisoned sausages by examining cat food in supermarkets and observing which flavours most thrilled his own two cats. As Morse said: “They’ve got to taste good. They are the cat’s last meal.”

These fatal airdrops owed their existence to Australia’s national government, which decided in 2015 to try to kill 2m feral cats by 2020, out of grave concern for the nation’s indigenous wildlife — in particular, groups of small, threatened rodent and marsupial species for which cats have become a deadly predator.

The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology estimated that 211,560 cats were killed during the first 12 months after the plan was announced. Dropping lethal sausages from the sky is only part of the country’s efforts to eradicate feral cats, which also include trapping, shooting and devising all manner of poison-delivery vessels.

Morse and Figliomeni spend much of each baiting season behind the wheel of their rig, hauling boxes to the most remote corners of one of the least populated places in the world, to beat back what Australia has deemed an invasive pest.

As is the case on islands around the world, the direction of life in Australia took a distinctly different route than that on the larger continents and, unlike places such as North America, the country has no native cat species. Over millions of years of isolation, Australia’s native beasts became accustomed to a different predatory order, so while cats aren’t necessarily more prevalent there than anywhere else, their presence is more ruinous.

They have also become nearly ubiquitous: According to the estimates of local conservationists, feral cats have established a permanent foothold across 99.8% of the country, with their density reaching up to 100 per square kilometre in some areas. Even places nearly devoid of human settlement, like the remote and craggy Kimberley region, have been found to harbor cats that hunt native animals.

The control effort, to which Western Australia’s baiting programme belongs, was meant to ease the predation pressure that cats exerted in every corner of the country where they had settled. Cats appeared in human lives seemingly unbidden, sauntering in at the dawn of agricultural settlement but maintaining their distance from total domestication.

Archaeological remains from the Fertile Crescent in modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine point to the presence of Felis silvestris, the wildcat predecessor of Felis catus, but in the beginning they were most likely scavengers attracted to human encampments. Their usefulness around the stores of grains that attracted small rodents probably endeared them to people, and the first evidence of their domestication is a set of remains on Cyprus — where they must have been transported intentionally — dating to around 7500 B.C.

A few thousand years later, in nearby Egypt and Greece, they became associated with goddesses and elevated to symbolic objects of veneration. Unlike other animals, bred specifically for consumption or to help with tasks, cats never underwent a targeted taming process as much as they fashioned themselves to fit, however obliquely, into human lives.

As for how Felis catus first arrived in Australia, no one really knows. For a long time, natural historians conjectured that the first cats may have been survivors of Dutch shipwrecks or stowaways with Indonesian trepangers in the 17th century.

But genetic tests have now shown that Australia’s mainland cats descended from more recent European progenitors. One researcher, after combing through the records of early European settlements, traced the cats’ arrival to the area around Sydney, the landing site in 1788 of the First Fleet — the flotilla of vessels carrying the convicts and marines who would begin the colonisation of Australia by the English.

Having been brought to manage rats on the ships, cats made landfall and, by the 1820s, established themselves on the southeastern seaboard. From there, they spread with astonishing speed.

“It is a very remarkable fact that the domestic cat is to be found everywhere throughout the dry back country,” one pastoralist reported in 1885.

I have met with cats, some of enormous size, at least 50 miles from water.

The cats preyed on small animals that interfered with food production or storage. Creatures such as the burrowing bettong, or boodie, a rabbit-size cousin of the kangaroo that has clasped forepaws and a bouncing hop, were so plentiful in the 19th century that they were sold by the dozen for nine pence a head.

Found throughout central Australia down to the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula and stretching nearly to the western coast, boodies were one of the most widespread of the continent’s many Lilliputian mammals. Their prodigious digging nearly destabilized railroad tracks in 1908.

Then cats were unleashed and, already suffering from disease and fox predation, boodies started to disappear. By the mid-20th century, they were declared extinct in mainland Australia. It wasn’t just the boodies. If anything, they were lucky — some small groups of burrowing bettongs clung on at a few islands that were relatively sheltered from the ravages visited on the mainland.

Since the First Fleet’s arrival, 34 mammal species have gone extinct in Australia. All of them existed nowhere else on earth; they’re gone. More than 100 mammal species in Australia are listed as between “near threatened” and “critical” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The continent has the highest mammal extinction rate in the world. Cats are considered to have been a leading threat for 22 of the extinct species, including the broad-faced potoroo, the crescent nailtail wallaby, and the big-eared hopping mouse.

“Recent extinction rates in Australia are unparalleled,” said John Woinarski, one of Australia’s foremost conservation researchers.

It’s calamitous.

What’s unusual about Australia’s mammal extinctions is that, in contrast to nearly everywhere else, the smaller animals are the ones hit hardest. After the Pleistocene’s wave of species disappearances carried

off enormous creatures such as sabre-toothed cats and woolly mammoths, large mammals all over the world have continued to face pressure, mostly from humans.

Globally, it’s rhinos, elephants, and gorillas that are among the most threatened. Not in Australia. There, it’s the desert bandicoot, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, and the Nullarbor dwarf bettong that have disappeared.

They belong to the category of creatures that, Woinarski noted in his seminal 2015 paper documenting the decline, are “meal-sized”.

He meant meal-sized for cats. Ever since he realized, while he was doing fieldwork in the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, that there were ever fewer native mammals to observe — precipitating what some have called the second wave of extinctions, after the initial impact of the First Fleet’s arrival — Woinarski has published a series of research papers looking at the effects of cats on wildlife.

His findings have been disquieting. In addition to mammals, cats kill an estimated 377m birds and 649m reptiles every year in Australia. (In Ireland, it is estimated that cats kill 4m birds annually).

On the evolutionarily sheltered continent of Australia, their presence represents one of the greatest threats to the continued existence of certain small mammals.

“Feral cats are a real menace and a very significant threat to the health of our ecosystem,” said Australia’s former environment minister, Josh Frydenberg.

That understanding among Australians helps explain why the most ardent opponents of the nation’s cat policy were, in the main, foreigners. Before the strategy was even announced, Australian newspapers were cheering the “bold plan to rescue our little emblems”.

One newspaper in the Northern Territory argued for the incorporation of cat stew into the national diet. The issue was framed as a grand scheme to protect Australia’s wildlife, as a war against cats — and, as with any war, it was couched in language about mission and values. Part of something uniquely Australian was under threat, and this is what it would take to save it. Patriots rallied to the cause.

“I think in Australia, it might be that they’ve seen the ravages of invasive species before,” said Peter Marra, co-author of Cat Wars, a 2016 book about the consequences of cats’ proliferation around the globe.

“They’ve seen what cats can do, or rabbits; they’ve seen what foxes do, and they’ve lost lots of species already in a short time frame — 50, 60, 70 years. And they’re done with it.”

Scott Morrison. (AP Photo/Andrew Taylor)
Scott Morrison. (AP Photo/Andrew Taylor)

Wild Australia stirs after dusk. Once all colour has drained from the deserts and forests, the night comes alive. Hunters say they know when they see a cat in the dark by its eyes, which glint green.

After weeks spent walking through starlit stands of pine trees and riding through the desert in pickup trucks, I had not seen the telltale flash until I went out one night with some members of the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, one of the country’s most influential gun organisations.

The association has a conservation division whose volunteers monitor, trap and shoot unwanted animals. Even though large-scale baiting, like the sausages dropped from airplanes, has proved effective at reducing the number of cats, often by half or more, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s data showed that shooters were responsible for 83% of feral cat deaths nationally in the first year of Australia’s efforts.

In rural Queensland, I met up with Mark W., Mark M. and Damien F. (The three men asked me not to use their last names for fear of reprisal.) A few hours after arriving at a farm in the flat country west of Brisbane, they pulled on extra layers against the cold and loaded up the truck. They departed in the dark of night; the wind smelled of dry leaves.

To sight in their rifle scopes, they put a piece of cardboard on a tree and fired shots that produced a reverberating roar and a diaphanous orange cloud, ephemeral against the night.

Then one of the shooters got back in the driver’s seat, and the truck jounced along the edge of sorghum fields populated with kangaroos. It wasn’t long before a dark creature crept across the road and into some trees. The men stopped the truck and shined their spotlight over the field. It was a fox.

Half a mile farther down the road, skirting the fields alongside a stand of prickly pear and acacia trees, Mark W. spotted something out to the right. He said softly:

Just drive slowly, please, and we can look down the rows

They backed the truck up and steered toward the area, inching forward. Out of the shades of gray cast by the spotlight, a pair of neon-green orbs shone out — cat eyes. The bang from the rifle seemed to flatten out all the other sounds of the night, creating a void in space. The men went still for a moment. The shot had hit the cat, but not fatally. Damien looked through a thermal monocular.

“It’s still flicking around out there,” he said. Mark W. got out of the truck and went stomping through the sorghum fields. When he found the cat, he shot it at close range and carried it by the tail back to the truck.

The cat was a tabby with fine black lines descending from its spine like the furrows of tree bark. It was a light gray; a healthy, muscled animal in its hunting prime. The force of the impact from the second shot had blown off the cat’s entire head, and there was little trace of it save the strands of tissue trailing from its body.

During the hours that followed, the men got in only instantly fatal head shots or else missed altogether. Mark W. cut a slit in a hind leg of each dead cat and hung it on a hook attached to his truck frame, in order to slice open their stomachs and see what they had been eating.

Long after midnight, as the truck turned back toward the farmhouses, and the men shot their fifth or sixth cat, Mark W. opened one up to find that it had been carrying five kittens that were close to term. Their skin was translucent and velvety, and when he took them out of the cat, they made their first noises.

“Five little killers,” he said, and, so they wouldn’t suffer alone in the cold night, he used a knife to cut their heads off.

Adapted from an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine

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