Report on Feral Cats

  • February 17, 2021

This report is arguably one of the most important reports that has been prepared by the environment and energy committee because it addresses what is one of the most significant environmental threats to Australia’s environment and to our wildlife—that is, the impact of feral cats, and cats more broadly as well. It cannot be underestimated how grave this threat to our wildlife actually is. Just think about these statistics. Cats have been the major cause for the extinction of 25 of the 34 Australian mammals that have been lost completely since the European settlement of our continent. A single feral cat in the bush kills 370 invertebrates, 44 frogs, 225 reptiles, 130 birds and 390 mammals per year. Each and every year that is the kill tally for a single feral cat. In fact, when you total it up, it means that predation by cats is responsible for the loss of 1.6 billion native animals every year.

I just want to put that in context. Last year, at the end of the Black Summer bushfires, there was a lot of work done to analyse the impact of those bushfires on native wildlife. It’s hard to predict, but the loss ranged from one billion to three billion native animals. So somewhere in the middle of that, each and every year, is the impact of cats on Australian wildlife. It’s worth reflecting on the fact that whilst it’s hard to predict precisely, and the numbers vary according to things like weather conditions and the abundance of food and so on, there is something like 2.8 million feral cats in the wild across Australia.

This is a substantial problem. We know that feral species in the broader sense have a huge impact on our environment. Cats are not alone in the damage that they do. We can talk about the impact of hunting by foxes. We can talk about the damage to landscape by goats and deer and feral horses. We know the damage that has been done by cane toads across northern Australia. But if you want to identify the one feral species that poses the greatest threat to our environment, unfortunately feral cats win that dubious prize.

In addition to the toll that they take on native wildlife through their hunting, we also know that feral cats are a conduit for the spread of pathogens. Many farmers around Australia know about the damage caused by toxoplasmosis in particular, a disease that cats are the vector for. This disease is entering our livestock, particularly sheep, and also impacting on native animals through the consumption of faeces and other interactions with those feral cats. This is a major problem facing our environment—sadly, one that arrived on the very first ship that came to our shores in 1788 and has exploded year by year as feral cat numbers have grown.

It is a major challenge, because feral cats are now found across 99 per cent or more of the Australian landscape. So 99 per cent of our continent and all of our landmass provides a home for feral cats. In fact, they are now not found on only a few islands, either by accident or by the deliberate actions of those trying to eradicate feral cats on some of those islands. These islands have become sanctuaries in themselves. The problem is of a vast scale, but, equally importantly, it’s a problem to which there is no silver bullet. There is no magic answer that allows us to address the problem of feral cats.

Of course there are a number of mechanisms that those trying to address the feral animal problem use. Cage trapping is occasionally used, particularly in the urban environment, but unfortunately cage trapping is no answer for the landscape-wide problem of feral cats because of the expense and the limited nature of the capacity of cages to catch cats. Baiting is used, and we have seen some important developments occurring in relation to baiting. It’s fair to say that baiting is probably the most effective and the only effective landscape-wide mechanism we have to try to reduce feral cat numbers, but it’s not without issues. There are concerns, obviously, about the humaneness of baiting programs. There is concern about whether it can impact on native species. But it is a very effective way of reducing feral cat numbers in some circumstances. We are seeing new developments in relation to baiting. For example, the committee heard about a new product, Felixer, which actually uses lasers to inject poison on the fur of feral cats. Uniquely, it can identify that the subject that has come into its range is actually a cat and not another species. So, it provides some further potential.

But we know, in relation to the continent-wide reduction of feral cats, that in the future we are going to have to look at other ways to reduce cat numbers. For example, there is work being done on gene drive technology, which can potentially alter the genetics of feral cat populations so that they can’t breed and reproduce. But, again, that technology itself is not without risk, and there is a lot more work that needs to be done on its potential applicability to cats in the Australian landscape, firstly and obviously, to ensure that it’s not also affecting domestic cat populations and, secondly, to ensure it doesn’t cross over to other feline species either in Australia or globally.

Perhaps most importantly of all we have seen efforts being undertaken by a range of governments and private organisations to try and protect our native wildlife through predator-free zones. These effectively take the form of sanctuaries that allow feral animals to be removed. Where that happens native wildlife flourishes. The committee had the benefit of visiting one not far from Parliament House, Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, where we saw the impact of predator-free fencing. It was just extraordinary, seeing the bettongs and the eastern quoll that, once absent, now live there. My view is that expanding those sanctuaries, which in the report we call a ‘Project Noah’ national effort, is probably the most important thing that governments can do. I encourage the government to look at a massive expansion of those sanctuaries to protect more of our wildlife.

I also want to touch on the impact of domestic cats. I know this can be a sensitive issue, because cat owners understandably love their little moggies, but often it’s underestimated how much damage the domestic cats themselves are doing. Sadly, we know that pet cats kill over one million animals per day. That means that basically one in four domestic cats is undertaking a kill of some form or other each day. That translates into over 390 million animals that are killed by our pet cats, unfortunately, over the course of a year. One of the problems we have is that most people don’t believe that their pet cat could perpetrate such heinous crimes. Every other person’s cat is so frequently the problem and not our own. But the reality is that cats do have a hunting instinct, which means that even domestic cats are a major cause of concern. This report looks at that, and it recommends a range of things that we can do, the most important of which, perhaps, is increasing our education about how to responsibly own and manage pet cats.

But it also came as a surprise to me that we don’t have mandatory desexing of cats in every jurisdiction across Australia. I strongly believe that state governments and local governments, with the support of the federal government, need to be considering whether night-time curfews should be more broadly instituted for domestic cats to protect native wildlife. This is particularly critical at the interface of urban areas and bushland. Even in an electorate like mine, where we have pockets of remnant bushland, it is so important. I would urge all cat owners themselves to think about whether they should be placing night-time curfews on their own cats, keeping them indoors so that they’re not roaming and killing native animals at night.

The committee also heard about the impact of imported new species of cats. This is a grave threat, and the committee strongly supported ensuring that we’re not adding to the species of cats present in the Australian environment by allowing the importation of things like Bengal cats, which are bigger, larger and more ferocious hunters.

This is an important report from the committee. I want to thank all of those who gave evidence. I want to thank my fellow committee members for producing what was a bipartisan, unanimous report. I want to thank the committee staff for the excellent job that they did in supporting this inquiry, as they always do. We do have the opportunity to make a difference to what seems to be an unsurmountable problem. The stakes are so high that I would urge all governments, including the federal government, to regard reducing feral cat numbers and better managing domestic cats as a key priority for protecting our unique and beautiful wildlife on this continent of ours.