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The true costs of war

By now, many of you have no doubt read the article “Australia Is Deadly Serious About Killing Millions of Cats,” published in yesterday’s edition of The New York Times Magazine

If you’re among those who haven’t read the article yet, suffice it to say that the details are truly heart-wrenching.

The background to this is that the government of Australia declared a “war on cats” in 2015 as a measure to stem native species extinctions, with the goal of killing two million cats by 2020. The obvious assumption in their decision-making is that cats are the primary, if not the only reason that native Australian species are going extinct at a higher rate than elsewhere in the world. The sanctioned methods for killing cats include hunting, trapping and a targeted poison.

Even though Best Friends is laser-focused on our work in the U.S. and our commitment to lead this country to saving 90% of its shelter animals by 2025, we are deeply concerned about the brutal and lethal approach to feline population management that is being sanctioned by a national government.

The Times piece documents the war’s many casualties (an estimated 211,560 cats during the first 12 months alone), its brutality and the unsettling enthusiasm with which it’s being conducted. 

The rationale for this carnage is the official assessment that there are two to five million feral cats roaming around Australia. This claim lacks the support of hard data and is mostly extrapolated from regions of the country with high human/cat populations. Likewise, the presumed impact of cats is extrapolated from worst-case observations.

As far as Australia’s track record for environmental management is concerned, it should be noted that the iconic and very native kangaroo is also the target of Aussie government-sanctioned slaughter because, well, kangaroos ruin the environment, or so the influential livestock lobby claims. Presumably, non-native cows and sheep are “more native” than cats, and their huge and degrading environmental impact is more tolerable. 

Not surprisingly, the article raises many questions, beginning with the very rationale for Australia’s war on cats: to save native species from extinction. It certainly sounds noble enough, but like many in the compassionate conservation community, we question the overly simple native/non-native dichotomy and its dire implications for millions of sentient beings.  

For Best Friends, one thing is universally true: Killing is not the answer to anything.

If, and it’s a big and unsubstantiated if, there are more than two million feral cats in Australia, then the population will multiply by 2020, especially if space is being made in their ecological niche by killing off competing cat communities. (Cats self-limit their breeding to the carrying capacity of their local environment.)

It has been suggested that a large-scale sterilization program, like the trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs used successfully across the U.S. and around the world, wouldn’t be effective at reducing the number of cats in Australia’s more desolate areas. Maybe not, but it seems like the idea wasn’t even given a fair hearing. More to the point, though, why would anybody think shooting and aerial baiting will be effective? After all, decades of eradication campaigns on small islands have shown us just how difficult it is to remove cats from “closed” habitats, where no new cats are moving in and existing cats have nowhere to go. 

To suggest that such efforts can be scaled up to all of Australia is viciously wishful thinking. 

This is one reason why the Australian government has committed millions in tax dollars to the development of what’s been called (apparently without irony) a “humane toxin” designed to kill cats. One can only wonder what could have been accomplished had the same resources been directed toward innovative non-lethal management methods. Consider, for example, the work being undertaken by the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs (which Best Friends has supported for years) and Michelson Found Animals Foundation, organizations committed to developing a non-surgical sterilant for cats (and dogs) that promises to be a true game-changer.

Even setting aside for the moment the numerous ethical questions, it’s important to point out that there’s considerable doubt that all this killing will actually achieve its stated objective. And there’s also good reason to think that, if “successful,” this campaign will backfire (like so many before it), with negative consequences for populations of other species.

Equally as important, cats are, first and foremost, hugely popular household pets, regarded by cat people as part of the family. Is the cat sitting in your front yard fair game or your neighbor’s lazy tabby? How do children growing up with this policy develop a sense of compassion for other species when the starting point for such development is usually a relationship with a household pet that the government is slaughtering without regard? 

To be sure, Australia is not America. The methods being used there are illegal here, for one thing. And very little appetite for shelter killing exists here, never mind unrestricted hunting of cats. Indeed, we know that Americans strongly support TNR

Still, we have our own war on cats to contend with. Just like Australia’s, its proponents seem willing to do whatever it takes to persuade policy makers, the media and the general public that it’s a just and necessary war.

And, like so many other wars, too little attention is being paid to the true costs involved.

Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society