Killing 2 Million Cats: When Broad Targets Aren’t Enough

Image Credit: Joey Doll, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

Conservation or politics? Australia’s target to kill 2 million cats (2019) Doherty et al., Conservation Letters,

The Crux

We’ve talked a lot lately about competition between causes on Ecology for the Masses. Often when extra attention is given to one cause over another equally valid cause, it’s a product of social trends coinciding at the right time, sudden events capturing the public interest (think the Notre Dame fire) or a particularly effective marketing campaign. But sometimes a cause or a conservation target can be used to deliberately distract the public from another cause, and it’s a potential example of this that we’re looking at today.

Australia has long had an issue with cats. They’ve decimated populations of native species, playing a large hand in the extinction of many species found nowhere else. So it makes sense that part of Australia’s first Threatened Species Strategy would be to minimise the impact of cat populations on local wildlife. The strategy included a target of 2 million cats being killed between 2015 and 2020. Whilst this might sound like a reasonable goal, this paper argues that the actual scientific evidence supporting the target is pretty weak, and goes into some alternatives and motives.

The Findings

Population Estimates

Citing a round number like 2 million as a culling target would imply that those who set the target have a good idea of how many feral cats there are in Australia. Early estimates which the target was based on indicated that the population was somewhere between 5 and 18 million, already a wide margin of error. But more comprehensive estimates have recently suggested that the population is potentially between 2 to 6 million. Furthermore, a reason for the rather arbitrary target of 2 million wasn’t given.

It’s Too Vague

Feral cats reproduce at a very high rate and move around a lot, meaning that if a large cull of cats takes place, unless it’s sustained, the population is likely to rebound very quickly. It also means that unless culls are spatially focused, they’re unlikely to have any impact on populations. An understanding of predator-prey relationships is also lacking, as some individuals are likely to have a higher impact than others. Essentially, simply aiming to kill 2 million cats without having any details on regional or temporal scale might not make much of a difference for threatened species.

There are other targets in the Strategy which are more specific, and which have a much more demonstrable impact. Removing feral cats from an island can benefit species enormously (often those species which are found nowhere else), as can the establishment of large cat-free areas, both of which are part of the Strategy.

Did You Know: More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

Cats are incredibly intelligent creatures. Whilst many cat owners justify letting their cats out by giving them bells to ensure local species can hear them coming, most cats are capable of stalking prey without the bells making a sound. Likewise, using poison bait for cats doesn’t always work, as cats can catch on pretty quickly. New technology employed by indigenous rangers includes traps which use lasers to identify cats from other species as they pass, spraying a dose of poison on the cats. The cats then lick this off later and are poisoned. Whether they will adapt to this method is yet to be seen.

The Motive

So why place so much emphasis on a target that has few demonstrable advantages for local Australian species, and so vague a scientific basis? Politics seems to be the answer here. Whilst invasive species like the fox, cat and cane toad are a very real threat, the largest threat to Australian species, just like it is for the rest of the world, is habitat loss and fragmentation, both of which are barely mentioned in the strategy. Australia’s land clearance rate is one of the worst in the world (and given the recent re-election of a science-lite government, this will probably only get worse), yet land clearing has significant sort-term economic benefits. Making a nice, round number such a public goal draws attention away from other more pressing issues and gives the impression that action is being taken.


While reducing feral cat populations could help local wildlife, reducing habitat fragmentation - caused here by land clearing for a coal seam gas well - would arguably help much more

While reducing feral cat populations could help local wildlife, reducing habitat fragmentation – caused here by land clearing for a coal seam gas well – would arguably help much more (Image Credit: Jeremy Buckingham, CC BY 2.0)

So What?

Let’s not say that the focus on feral cats is a complete failure. Targeted culls may benefit some of Australia’s threatened species, and the programs have actually produced some great examples of cultural integration. But there’s that lingering hint of bad faith in a target like this that aims to distract people from a more pressing and damaging threat to Australia’s wildlife.

Unfortunately this is a common response when ecological needs conflict with economic ones. We can only recommend that it’s always worth keeping your eye on a party’s environmental policies, and see if they actually deal with the environmental problems your country (and the rest of the world) suffer from.

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