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There’s nothing feral about this Australian wildcat. Photograph by Angus Emmott

Let’s give feral cats their citizenship

There’s been a lot of talk about killing feral cats, with the government’s recently announced war on cats setting the goal of killing two million by 2020.

On The Conversation last week, Katherine Moseby and John Read explained several different ways to control feral cats, including baiting.

But we would like to offer a different idea: let’s embrace cats as part of Australia’s environment. We could even rename them “Australian wildcats”. Let us explain.

Embracing cats would primarily entail ending our practice of killing cats. This would have many advantages.

It would benefit the cats, because they would no longer endure our increasingly creative methods of ending their lives. We would also benefit greatly by unburdening ourselves of the task of causing suffering and death to cats. But what may seem counterintuitive is that leaving cats alone can also benefit Australia’s threatened native species.

Being kind to cats can help native wildlife

Many people love cats and do not want them harmed. Advocates for nonlethal approaches to control cat numbers often recommend sterilisation, but this idea is based on the mistaken assumption that feral cats are originating from our homes.

Many cats do live among us, but most now exist in a completely wild state, including in the middle of the driest of deserts and the lushest of rainforests. Sterilisation can help reduce the number of house cats without a home, but it will not benefit wildlife away from cities. We need to move beyond thinking about cats as either wards or enemies.

Several small and medium-sized native species have declined and gone extinct, partially due to non-native cats and foxes. Several decades of conservation efforts have therefore focused on killing these predators, a sufficiently long process to learn that this approach is not working.

Even highly coordinated and intensive eradication programs backfire. This can happen in two ways. Killing cats, even two million of them, can inadvertently increase cat numbers by enabling more cats to immigrate into vacant territories. Conversely, cat eradication can cause population booms of other species (such as rabbits and rats) and result in further harm.

Ecosystems are notoriously, and wonderfully, complex things. They are comprised of dense networks of interactions that bind the fate of species to one another. Cats have become deeply entangled in this web of life. Attempting to remove cats from Australian ecosystems will not be a clean and painless surgery, and it will not heal the patient.

Coexistence with cats is possible

For many years introduced species were believed to be harmful because natives have not evolved the traits to hold their own against them. But we are learning that species can be surprisingly adaptable.

For example, when native Australian predators first encounter cane toads they often mistake them for just another familiar amphibian and readily eat them, unaware of the toad’s defence – toxic glands on their backs.

Eventually predator populations recover as they learn how to eat them, they learn not to eat them, or they adapt to the toxin. Such a remarkable recovery has not occurred for many of the native prey species threatened by cat and fox predation, and not because they are slow. Their difficulty, instead, lies with the very actions we are taking to save them.

The number of cats and their influence on other wildlife are a function of ecological context. Major forces that influence the ability of prey to coexist with cats include vegetation cover and larger predators. Grazing and fire can reduce vegetation cover and make it harder for prey animals to escape. Significantly, larger predators, such as dingoes, are a major threat to cats.

Dingoes do more than just kill cats, they communicate with them and influence their behaviour. Cats fear dingoes, and stay away from areas frequented by them. They also avoid hunting when dingoes are most active. This creates areas of safety for the prey of cats. Our poisons and traps kill cats, but tell them nothing.

From foxes to cats

The war on cats is ultimately a consequence of our failed war on foxes.

Foxes have long been held as Australia’s primary environmental villain. They are also easier to kill, because they more readily scavenge. Meat baits laced with 1080 poison are used extensively in conservation programs.

This inhumane poison kills foxes and dingoes in untold numbers, and enables cats to breed up and move with impunity across the landscape.

For example, a major poison-baiting campaign did help recover endangered woylies for a time, but eventually the loss of foxes and dingoes caused cats to take over and the newly recovered population collapsed.

All Australian conservation programs dedicated to restoring small native species on the mainland continue to use 1080. National parks use it. Pastoral stations use it. Councils use it.

It is time to go cold turkey.

Embracing Australia’s wildlife without prejudice

Cats have become an integral part of Australia’s wildlife and beauty. Many native species successfully coexist with cats, especially when we leave predators alone.

Australian wildcats probably provide the same ecological functions as they do in their native ranges, such as suppressing population irruptions of their prey. Killing cats achieves only one outcome with consistency: it produces dead cats.

However, the aim of conservation is not to generate an ever increasing body count, but to guide human behaviour to enable the rest of the Earth’s species to flourish. Embracing cats is a paradigm shift. It means embracing the entirety of Australia’s modern ecosystems - native and feral - and letting go of the past.

It is time to accept these immigrants as Australian citizens.

The authors will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 2 and 3pm AEST on Wednesday, July 29. Post your questions in the comments section below.

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