Recent research has indicated a distressing amount of native Australian wildlife is being killed by cats - potentially million of birds, reptiles and small mammals every day. Feral cats are such a significant threat to Australian wildlife because of the absence of similar predators throughout recent evolutionary history – behaviours of our small mammals in particular simply haven’t adapted quickly enough to the rapid rise of a highly-efficient nocturnal hunter. The impacts in some cases have been catastrophic, with feral cats identified as the primary short-term threat to many endangered Australian species.
What can be done to help our wildlife and keep pet cats safe?
The best thing for both Australia’s wildlife and the safety of cats is responsible pet ownership – measures like keeping pet cats contained and de-sexing are essential. Cats do so well in Australian environments that deplorable behaviour such as dumping unwanted litters isn’t just incredibly cruel to the kittens, as survivors are able to grow into quite sizeable and dangerous animals that, as stated in the report, are very bad news for Australia’s wildlife. The good news is responsible pet ownership is something all cat owners can practice, and positively some local governments around the country are introducing additional measures to either keep pet cats completely contained on peoples' properties or to at least ensure they aren’t out at night through curfews.
How does the death of native wildlife from cat predation affect Australia's ecosystems?
Australia’s native species that are impacted on by cats have evolved with their environments for hundreds of thousands of years and are essential to the health of our forests, heathlands, grasslands and everything in between. An incredible level of ecosystem services such as pollination, the spreading of seeds , reduction of agricultural and environmental pests and nutrient turnover are provided by Australia’s diverse wildlife. And, of course, the high levels of daily killing is a major problem simply due to the potential loss of some of Australia’s incredible and unique species through extinction from high level of predation pressure - a price cannot be put on losing our precious biodiversity.
So if I de-sex and keep my cats contained, wildlife will be safe?
Unfortunately with so many cats already in the environment, responsible pet ownership is only part of the solution. Current government-funded control methods include baiting for cats with 1080-based poisons, which being incredibly inhumane is certainly not in the best interests of cats or other non-target wildlife that can take them. The tragedy is that, as usual, it is we humans who are at fault and the animals (be they cats or the native species killed by cats) that suffer. HSI advocates for more natural methods of suppressing feral cat populations such as reducing controls on dingo populations, which have been shown to lower cat abundance and limit their hunting movement. For years we have attempted to influence outdated management practices by having this relationship recognised and policy adapted accordingly, but at present both the dingoes and cats are indiscriminately killed through baiting and shooting programs to the great detriment of Australia’s biodiversity.
Are cats the biggest threat to our wildlife?
While feral cats are undoubtedly a great threat to Australia’s biodiversity, and for some species are the greatest short-term driver of extinction, they have recently been used to divert attention away from other threats such as land clearing. It’s a perverse argument, as we need to address all threats to wildlife such as climate change and high levels of land clearing. Feral cats, while a significant threat, are becoming a go-to scapegoat.
What else can I do to help protect native species?
Collectively we can all make a huge difference to the survival of Australia's wildlife. For example, many members of HSI’s Wildlife Land Trust program protect habitat for both at-risk and more abundant species on their private properties. Every bit of bush has a role to play and measures such as installing nest boxes, provided drinking water and planting diverse native plant species on individual properties go a long way when everyone gets involved!