Herding Cats to Curtail Extinction

It’s pretty difficult being a cat lover in Australia. Every day, all over the world, us ‘cat people’ are ridiculed day in, day out, for our affinity with humankind’s most intriguing, more-than-human companions. Especially for women, developing a strong bond with your pet cat is often viewed as spinsterish, sad, and verging on the insane. ‘Crazy cat lady’ remarks come at the drop of a hat if you so much as mention the existence of your feline friend, whilst men who admit to even the smallest admiration for cats can also be greeted with some derision. 

Image: Princeton University Press

Image: Princeton University Press

But in Australia, the cat lover’s relationship with their dear pets is particularly fraught. Excluding Antarctica, Australia is the only continent without native species of the cat family, Felidae. In addition to the aforementioned scorn heaped upon those who choose the cat life over the dog, there is the guilt that comes with the knowledge of the extreme and, in many cases, irreversible damage that felines have caused to our native habitats. It is frustrating and upsetting to many of us that our pets and their relatives are responsible for so much death and destruction. We are encouraged to keep our animals indoors, away from the local species that called this place home long before our cats did, but at the end of the day most people want what’s best for themselves and their family – which usually includes their pets.

But even in light of the jokes, the guilt and the trouble of having to keep your cat indoors, what is far more difficult to be in Australia is a native mammal. More than 100 species of native Australian mammals, as well as over 30 bird species, are at risk of extinction due to a variety of factors, with one of the most concerning being predation by feral cats. A widely reported fact of recent times, it is well-known that Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world, with feral cats thought to be implicated in the extinction of 20 native mammal species.

Whilst the authors of Cat Wars dedicate only a small number of words to the feral and stray cat situation down under, they have produced an informative and broad text that is particularly poignant. Compared to the majority of the book spent critiquing the lack of effort in the US to control cat populations, the section on Australia depicts our nation’s control schemes as somewhat exemplary. In 2015, the Australian government announced that it planned to cull up to 2 million feral cats by 2020 in order to provide some relief for the many species at risk of extinction. But there is still some way to go. Overall, this book presents a relatively nuanced perspective of cat-related problems, including discussions of the controversial TNR (trap-neuter-return) strategies implemented in the US and elsewhere, case studies of species extinctions, the culture of keeping cats around the world, and why humans need to take more responsibility for the actions of felines.

Feral cats can be found across the continent of Australia, including the Big Desert, Victoria where this photo was taken.  Image: Billy Geary

Feral cats can be found across the continent of Australia, including the Big Desert, Victoria where this photo was taken. Image: Billy Geary

Although primarily US-based, the arguments of authors Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella are relevant to just about any country currently dealing with the onslaught of predation from stray and feral cats. They also do not downplay the importance of ethical treatment of both cats and their prey, as well as how our perception of the natural world affects decisions made towards either a better or worse future. Painting an eye-opening picture of our war with cats, the authors reflect on the words of those who want species to be saved not just for humans' sake, but for their own, such as nature writer Ted Williams’ remarks regarding a critically endangered subspecies of grasshopper sparrow:  

Maybe the only explanation for people who have to ask why the Florida grasshopper sparrow matters is this: It matters not because it is a source of enrichment for human lives (although it is), not because it is a source of medicine or agent of pest control (it is probably neither), not because it is an “indicator species” that tells us we haven’t completely wrecked our habitat, not because it is anything, only because it is.

The featured case studies provide a variety of perspectives on why both stray and feral cat populations need containing, the first chapter in particular telling the poignant story of the extinction of the Stephens Island wren at the hands of feral cats: ‘a unique song, a lost language never recorded, and one now permanently silent.’ And it is not only native creatures that suffer - cats attempting to survive out in the wild are subject to incredibly brutal, inhumane conditions. The authors also take care to highlight the many hazards to humans from increasing cat populations – Toxoplasma, ‘cat scratch fever’, rabies - as well as to their own pets. 

A variety of bird and mammal species are at risk of extinction, due in part to the threat of feral cats.  Image: Wikimedia Commons / Brisbane City Council

A variety of bird and mammal species are at risk of extinction, due in part to the threat of feral cats. Image: Wikimedia Commons / Brisbane City Council

Ironically, my own relationship with the natural world arguably stems from a childhood friendship with my family cats. I was desperate to be a veterinarian – to serve and protect the cats, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and other domesticated pets for whom I had endless affection. It was only in my later years of high school and early years of university when I decided to study Zoology that I began to properly appreciate that I had not only grown up alongside cats, but also the Australian animals to be found right outside my door. It is sometimes easier to remember the animals with whom you’ve shared a whole life, than those that flitter in and out of yours.

We must value the native species whose homes our cats have overtaken, rather than providing complete freedom of the outdoors to an animal that would otherwise be happy with a bit of supervised time in our backyards (on a lead or in a ‘catio’), and a full tummy indoors. If we give our cats absolute access to Australia’s natural environment, aren’t we in turn restricting the access that native species have?

Cats can be independent, playful and curious - this is why we love them. But it’s also why we must give them some tough love so that our native species receive some much-needed reprieve - for the cats' sakes, our sake, and the sakes of thousands of individual, native animals, that make up the natural environment of our rapidly changing, uniquely Australian landscapes. 

You can purchase your copy of Cat Wars from Andrew Isles Natural History Books.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel is an Arts and Science graduate and a freelance writer who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She has completed an Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

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