Australia is home to some of the most dangerous animals in the world, and recently the federal government set its sights on one particular predator that it claims is the country’s single biggest threat to native species: cats.
This week Gregory Andrews, Australia's first threatened species commissioner, put forth a plan for "24-hour containment requirements for domestic cats.” The plan would require pet cats in designated containment areas to be allowed outside only when on a leash or in an enclosure.
The idea isn’t a new one. In 2005, 12 suburbs in the Australian capital of Canberra were declared cat-containment areas because of their proximity to nature reserves, and pet cats must be kept indoors 24 hours a day. (There's a similar situation in Key Largo, Florida, where cat owners are advised to keep their pets indoors because those found prowling in a nearby wildlife refuge will be trapped and taken to a shelter.)
Australia’s containment plan comes on the heels of the government’s five-year threatened species strategy, which aims to eliminate 2 million feral cats by 2020, an initiative that Andrews has called a “war on cats.”
Colonists introduced cats to the continent in the 18th century, and today Australia has 20 million to 30 million feral felines that scientists say are the reason Australia has seen the extinction of more mammals than any other nation.
"Each cat kills between three and 20 native animals a day," Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "So if you assume four animals a day, that's carnage of 80 million native animals a day."
Species at risk include the hairy-nosed wombat, the northern quoll and the boobook, an owl species.
The government plans to combat its feral cat problem through several means. Part of the initiative will involve community monitoring of feral cats, as well as trapping programs.
However, $3.6 million — about half of the plan’s budget — is dedicated to eradicating the animals.
The Australian government will use detector dogs, shooting and poison bait to eliminate the animals. The bait, known as “Curiosity,” will be hidden inside pieces of meat. It contains a toxic compound that stops the flow of oxygen.
The plan has drawn criticism from cat lovers across the globe, including French actress Brigitte Bardot.
“The $6 million you plan to spend in destroying these animals would be much better spent in setting up a large-scale sterilization campaign,” she wrote in an open letter to Environment Minister Greg Hunt.
Kelly O’Shanassy, chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, has called the program “commendable;” however, she says it fails to address habitat loss, which is an even greater threat to vulnerable species.
“The strategy … fails to meaningfully address the biggest threat to threatened species and ecological communities — the loss and fragmentation of habitat — either through investment in new protected areas or by safeguarding existing critical places,” she told The Guardian.
This isn’t the first time feral cats have made headlines in this part of the world.
In 2013, economist Gareth Morgan — who refers to cats as “natural born killers” — launched a website calling for the eradication of cats in New Zealand, a country where feral cats have contributed to the extinction of nine native bird species.
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