Australia Is Deadly Serious About Killing Millions of Cats

Feral felines are driving the country’s native species to extinction. Now a massive culling is underway to preserve what’s left of the wild.

By Jessica Camille Aguirre

April 25, 2019/ New York Times

In the deep winter weeks of July 2018, 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, like cats, whose evolutionary paths did not require them to develop a tolerance to it. (The baits would also be lethal to other nonnative species, like 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.

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 kilometer. 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 two to six million feral cats roam. Dr. Death, whose real name is Dr. 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 flavors 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 two million 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.

When the policy was announced, it was met in some quarters with apoplexy. More than 160,000 signatures appeared on half a dozen online petitions entreating Australia to spare the cats. Brigitte Bardot wrote a letter — in English, but with an unmistakably French cadence — beseeching the environment minister to stop what she called animal genocide. The singer Morrissey, formerly of the Smiths, lamented that “idiots rule the earth” and said the plan was akin to killing two million miniature Cecil the Lions. Despite anger from some animal rights groups and worries about the potential effects on pet cats, Australia went ahead with its plan, and the threatened-species commissioner replied by mail to both Bardot and Morrissey, politely describing the “delightful creatures” already lost to the world.

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 percent of the country, with their density reaching up to 100 per square kilometer 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 program belongs, was meant to ease the predation pressure that cats exerted in every corner of the country where they had settled. Faced with a choice between a species regarded as a precious pet and the many small creatures of their unique land, Australians seemed to have decided that guarding the remaining wild might mean they would have to spill some blood.

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 the Palestinian territories 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 colonization 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 like 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. Recipes for curries made with native animals like bandicoots, another small marsupial, appeared in local newspapers. Boodies were, in the words of the naturalist John Gilbert, “one of the most destructive animals to the garden of the settler that occurs in Western Australia,” because of their practice of building interconnected underground warrens. 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.

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. After Greg Hunt, the environment minister at the time, announced the plan at a zoo, editorials and letters almost universally welcomed it. 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.

“Even in my industry, I didn’t appreciate the severity of the problem until they started to publicize it,” a Queensland veterinarian named Katria Lovell told me. “Australians have a huge appreciation for our natural fauna. It’s sort of what we’re known for.” She added: “Most people have empathy with the fact that there is all this wildlife being killed and it is taking its toll on the environment, so I think there is a general feeling that something has to be done.” PETA Australia had its reservations, but in principle recognized that feral cats hunted wildlife to a point at which species can no longer survive. Petitions protesting the cull, organized in the United States and Europe, were met with scorn. “Why has someone started a petition to save the feral cats?” one newspaper reader texted to an editor in Queensland. “Pure stupidity as more and more native animals are killed by cats.”

When I asked Frydenberg why Australian politicians didn’t encounter the kind of fallout that has thwarted any similar, albeit local, efforts in the United States, he told me the debate has focused on the impact to wildlife and remained less emotional. “You can have a love for a domestic pet and still recognize the threat they pose to your native environment,” he told me. Alley Cat Allies and other organizations that adhere to a no-kill credo have wielded broad influence in the United States, but they don’t have the same kind of presence in Australia. The country’s threatened-species commissioner pointed out that cats weren’t the first animal to be considered so disruptive that they needed to be eliminated, and Australia has already begun efforts to control other introduced animals like rabbits and foxes.

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

In June, I met the ecologist Katherine Moseby in Adelaide, and we drove up to Roxby Downs together in her dusty Toyota pickup truck. We were going to visit the Arid Recovery Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary she helped found in the red-sand deserts at the southern edge of central Australia, where she would gather data to finish up some cat studies. As we drove, the landscape transformed from managed green agricultural hills to a dry shrub land dotted with bluebush; the horizon evaporated into distant salt lakes. Moseby and her husband, John Read, have come up with an array of ways to do away with the continent’s cats. They have invented a robot that can recognize a passing cat and eject poison that the cat will later ingest when it grooms itself. They have helped develop a poison polymer strand that is injected into prey species to make them lethal to their predators. (The strands, which look like deflated Good & Plenty candies, are designed to remain inert just under the skin of the prey and activate at the lower pH level found in a predator’s stomach.) Moseby doesn’t relish killing. But in her moral calculus, she has accepted that some cats have to go in order to keep other animals in existence.

Even though Australia’s cat plan didn’t kindle the kind of organized resistance that would put it in peril, many of the country’s cat owners weren’t happy about it. Moseby has tried to emphasize the conservation aspect of the plan, appearing in the country’s newspapers to champion efforts to reintroduce native species to areas from which they have long been absent. But her work eliminating their predators has still rankled people who she says have a stronger connection to cats than to the dwindling pockets of unfamiliar wild creatures.

By putting GPS and VHF collars on cats, scientists all over Australia have realized how little they understand about the creatures they are trying to control.