According to the Biological Conservation journal, a collation of 91 studies concluded that the feral cat population in Australia "fluctuates between 1.4 and 5.6 million," meaning that these wild felines cover 99.8 percent of the continent's land area.
The cats (who are not native to the region) are mostly found in Australia's "highly modified environments" such as farms and urban areas. Additionally, the research shows that feral cat densitites are higher on small islands than on the mainland.
This finding is an urgent matter, both when it comes to humanely handling the feral cat populations and trying to save and sustain the continent's wildlife population. The study links the feral cats to recent mammal extinctions and explains that the high number of cats continue to "threaten native species." Some species that have been hardest hit by the feral cat populations include the Australian fauna.
"Australia is only one of 17 'mega-diverse' nations on earth and is home to more species than any other developed country. Our wildlife is unique—yet we have the dubious honor of having the worst mammal extinction rate in the world," says Rebecca Keeble, the senior campaigns and policy officer for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "Given that the well-being of humans and animals is inherently linked, we advocate the protection of Australia’s biodiversity through the application of management programs that are precautionary and ecologically sustainable, ensuring the humane treatment of all animals including pest species."
The matter of figuring out how to control the feral cat population has become a "high-profile priority," according to the journal article. Although the cats post a threat to Australian wildlife populations, many experts and advocates are hoping the problem can be solved in a compassionate way.
"Many of Australia's unique wildlife species—including small ground dwelling mammals, reptiles, and small birds—are susceptible prey for stray and feral cats, and feral cats recognised as a key threat to a number of listed threatened species," Keeble says. "Whilst acknowledging the impact on native wildlife, IFAW believes that control of feral cats must be undertaken humanely and under the strictest of protocols. No animal, regardless of whether it is native or feral, should be subject to cruelty under a population management program."
According to an article in The Guardian, conservationists are proposing to rebuild habitats for small marsupials so they can escape the cats. Other researchers are suggesting an increase in the dingo population in outback areas to help control the cat populations. Trap-neuter-and-return (TNR) programs that are popular in the U.S. and other countries are not currently being considered given the extremely high numbers of feral cats and the level of difficulty and resources it would take to trap the felines and spay or neuter them. At this time, there is no definitive and comprehensive action plan for addressing the skyrocketing feral cat problem in Australia.
Keeble explains that it's important for the human population to take responsibility for domestic animals and the impact they may potentially have on the environment. "It is critical that people understand the impact of domestic animals on native wildlife, and not allow domestic animals (cats and dogs) to stray and become predatory and feral," she says.
The story has made waves with activists in the United States as well. Becky Robinson, president and founder of Alley Cat Allies, states to petMD that the efforts to stop this issue is unfairly pointing the finger at cats, and not focusing elsewhere. "The Australian government has repeatedly indicated that they understand that human development is the primary cause of species loss, but rather than address those issues, they are allowing mining and development in sensitive areas.""
PETA Australia’s Associate Director of Campaigns Ashley Fruno notes, "Every single scientific study tells us that lethal control doesn’t provide a long term solution to invasive animal populations and, in fact, can backfire, since it causes a spike in the food supply, creates a vacuum, and so prompts accelerated breeding. Australia needs to embark on a vast sterilization campaign in order to protect native wildlife. This problem also highlights why cats should never be allowed to roam outdoors without supervision."
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