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Australia’s Feral Animals

Australia’s Feral Animals

by William H. Benson

May 16, 2019

     Australia is a world away from the United States. Ask a typical American for details about Australia, and he or she may recollect three familiar items: sheep, kangaroos, or rabbits.

     Today, Australia’s shepherds care for some 75 million sheep that graze on huge pastures that the natives call stations. Also, the kangaroo is a marsupial, those mammals that evolved on the Australian continent, and are known for a mother’s pouch where the infant resides for weeks after birth.

     Then, the rabbit is one of the ecological disasters that resulted after Europeans introduced their animals into Australia. Australian officials have since tried to manage a series of invasive species.

     Feral rabbits spread across the continent, mainly because they face no natural predators, like wolves or coyotes. One incredible statistic, almost unbelievable, claims that by 1920, Australia’s ranchers and shepherds were facing as many as 10 billion rabbits.

     A rabbit’s ability to destroy a pasture is astonishing. It leaves nothing behind, not a single spear of grass, and then the soil erodes. To reduce rabbit numbers, Australians have built fences, shot them, poisoned them, and introduced a killing bacteria. Today, their population stands at about 200 million.   

     Another ecological disaster is the hog. In a short amount of time, domesticated hogs that escaped farms turned feral. Today, an estimated 24 million hogs ravage Australia’s pastures.

     One official said that “feral hogs are prolific breeders, more akin to the breeding habits of rabbits. Sows produce two litters per year, and four to 10 pigs per litter.” Ranchers build fences, but the hogs burrow under them.

     Then, there are 5 million feral donkeys, 2.6 million feral goats, 400,000 feral horses, 300,000 feral camels, 150,000 feral water buffalos, and a number of feral dogs, the dingoes.

     But of all the invasive species, it is the feral cat that Australian officials are most determined to cull. A recent New York Times Magazine article reported that between two and six million feral cats reside across 98% of Australia’s landmass, but an official pushed the number higher, close to 20 million.

     These feral cats are “catastrophic cats,” not your sweet, gentle house cat. The male feral cats are vicious predators that have mastered the art of hunting birds, mammals, retiles, amphibians, and that go on profligate sprees. They climb trees, find the birds’ nests, and eat the eggs or hatchlings.

     “They hunt no matter what. Even if not hungry, they are programmed to stalk available prey. The cats kill an estimated 377 million birds and 649 million reptiles every year in Australia.”

     As a result, “an estimated 34 mammal species are now extinct, and the cats are blamed for 22 of those extinctions. Officials list another 100 plus species in Australia as ‘near threatened,’ or ‘critical’.”

     John Woinarski, an Australian conservation researcher, said, “Recent extinction rates in Australia are unparalleled. It’s calamitous.”

     “In 2015, the Australian national government adopted a plan to kill two million feral cats by 2020, out of grave concern for the nation’s indigenous wildlife, groups of small and threatened rodent and marsupial species, for which cats have become a deadly predator.”

     Today, hunters kill the cats with either bullets or with arrows, or they trap them and then shoot them, or they poison them. Pilots eject 50 poisoned sausages per square mile from airplanes in certain targeted areas, “laying down nearly half a million baits in the course of one month.”

     “The sausages include kangaroo meat, chicken fat, a mix of herbs and spices, along with a poison—called 1080—derived from gastrolobium plants and highly lethal to cats.”

     Cats first arrived in Australia in the mid-eighteenth century and then “spread with astonishing speed,” across the continent. In 1885, a rancher reported, “It is a very remarkable fact that the domestic cat is to be found everywhere throughout the dry back country. I have met with cats, some of enormous size, at least 50 miles from water.”

     A backlash erupted against the killing, but from foreigners, who organized petition drives to save the cats. “The petitions were met with scorn in Australia.” The Australians asked, “Why has someone started a petition to save the feral cats? Pure stupidity as cats kill more and more native animals.”

     In the U.S., Alley Cat Allies and other organizations promote a no-kill, or a catch-neuter-release policy, a program that may stop the cats’ proliferation, but will not stop the wildlife devastation now.

     Australians will continue to try to manage the feral animal populations, especially the cats, but the sheer numbers overwhelm them.