Explained: why is Australia killing millions of cats?

While the cull sparked outrage among some animal lovers, we take a closer look into the Australian government's five year plan aimed at saving native species from the feral predators

ABU DHABI - UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - 04JUNE2017 - Trapped stray cats by Volunteers from Animal Welfare Abu Dhabi, neuter them and release them back near Mina fish market in Abu Dhabi. Ravindranath K / The National ID: 79679 (to go with Nicholas Webster story for News) *** Local Caption ***  RK0406-Welfarepets13.jpg
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Australia has raised the ire of many animal lovers with a plan to kill an estimated two million feral cats by 2020.

One article in particular titled “Australia plans to kill millions of feral cats by airdropping sausages laced with poison” has been making the rounds on social media much to the horror of cat lovers around the world.

However, despite the outcry, many of the country’s residents view the cull as a positive move for conservation of native Australian species, including many birds and small mammals threatened with extinction.

For some time Australia has been aware that cats – an alien species introduced during European colonisation along with foxes, goats, pigs and rabbits – were having a detrimental impact on the environment by preying heavily on the native fauna.

In 2015 the government proposed a five-year plan, including how to tackle feral cats and finding safe havens for endangered native species.

Why does Australia want to kill cats?

In research published in the Journal of Biogeography in 2015, it was documented that feral cats fed on and killed 400 vertebrate species including 28 included in IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species.

“Australia is the only continent on Earth other than Antarctica where the animals evolved without cats, which is a reason our wildlife is so vulnerable to them. This reinforces the need to cull feral cats humanely and effectively,” said former threatened species commissioner Gregory Andrews in 2017.

Australia is the only continent on Earth other than Antarctica where the animals evolved without cats, which is a reason our wildlife is so vulnerable to them.

Feral cats are different from strays in that they have little to no interaction with humans and thus rely on their own animal instinct to survive. Most cannot be tamed by humans, especially after reaching adulthood.

Their presence in the Australian wilderness is believed to have had a significant impact on the number of threatened species, which include the bilby, numbat, and the extremely rare western ground parrot.

According to the Australian government website, the plan for 2020 includes eradicating feral cats from five islands and establishing 10 new feral cat free mainland enclosures.

"At least one, and probably two, Australian mammals have been made extinct in the last decade, and if current trends continue many of the 55 threatened species will disappear within our lifetimes," adds John Woinarski, an Australian ornithologist.

"If we had to choose one key action to conserve Australia's biodiversity it would be the control or eradication of feral cats, which currently threaten at least 100 mammal species."

These are some of the threatened mammals that Australia's Threatened Species Strategy hopes to improve trajectories for by 2020:

How will Australia's feral cats be killed?

Part of the plan to cull the rising cat population includes feeding them with poisoned sausages laced with 1080 – the name for sodium fluoroacetate. It is colourless, odourless and tasteless. The toxin is found naturally in pea plants, meaning that while animals native to Australia have evolved a tolerance, it is fatal to feral cats and other invasive species.

The government plans to infuse the poison into sausages made from kangaroo meat and chicken fat and drop them into feral cat populated areas. Other methods of reducing feral cats include less humane options such as shooting and trapping – with a $10 (Dh26) bounty on offer per feral cat scalp.

Why can't the cats be rescued instead?

The total number of feral cats in the country is said to be between two to six million, too many in the wild to try and capture as well as house. In an article in The New York Times magazine, it's stated that that local conservationists estimate that feral cats have established a "permanent foothold across 99.8 percent of the country, with their density reaching up to 100 per square kilometer in some areas."

Australia is vast with 7.7 million square kilometres and has extremely difficult terrain. Any effective programme has to be able to be carried out the air, as many of the places where they exist are remote and it would be far to costly to attempt to capture them all from the ground. Which leaves poison drops as the most effective method.

Do Australians hate cats?

No, cats are very popular as pets in Australia and many Australians devote their time to rescuing and caring for stray domestic cats. Most responsible cat owners know that their moggies pose a threat to the local birds, reptiles, frogs and small mammals that may exist in their local area and are careful to keep them indoors, or supervise them when outside.

Feral cats, however, are widely seen as a threat to Australia's beloved native wildlife. Most Australians do not want to see these cats treated cruelly, but are pragmatic about the need to humanely destroy them in order to save many more precious animal lives.

"We are not culling cats for the sake of it, we are not doing so because we hate cats," said Andrews in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald. "We have got to make choices to save animals that we love, and who define us as a nation."