Trade and Environment Database (TED) Case Study: Australian Feral Cat Dilemma.
Copyright 1997, Michele Ameri


I. Identification

1. The Issue

In October of 1996, Richard Evans, a member of Australia's parliament called for the "total eradication of cats from Australia," which he feels are responsible for the destruction of Australia's local environment. Although Evans' solution is viewed as rather extreme, many Australians agree that feral cats in particular (cats which have returned to living in the wild) are having a significant effect on Australia's other wildlife. Having been introduced by man into an environment which has not evolved to deal with it, the feral cat has become a dominant predator. Feral cats are being accused of substantially contributing to, if not directly causing, the extinction of species of wildlife indigenous to Australia. This phenomenon is one that has become familiar around the world as the domestic cat is introduced into the wild. However, there is still no consensus as to how to solve this problem concerning one of human beings' favorite pets. (Mydans, A1)

2. Description

The history of the domestic cat:

The modern day domestic cat is thought to be descended from the felis silvestris libyca, an African subspecies of the cat family. Its first domestication is thought to have taken place in ancient Egypt over 3500 years ago. Although the remains of cat bones and teeth dating from around 6000 B.C. were found during the excavation of the city of Jericho, there is no conclusive proof that these were the remains of domestic cats. The earliest known record of domesticated cats is now the tomb of Ti, in Egypt, where a depiction of a cat wearing a collar can be found. (Turner, 151-2)

Cats were just one of many animals domesticated by the ancient Egyptians, who took pleasure in taming such animals as monkeys, baboons, mongooses, and even crocodiles. These animals were seen as earthly representations of Egyptian gods and goddesses. The cat too, assumed such a role. The male was considered sacred to the sun god, Ra, as it was in the guise of a cat that he was believed to fight off the serpent of darkness every morning. Yet the cat earned even more respect as the representative of the cat goddess, Bastet, who was the feminine symbol of fertility, fecundity, and motherhood. Bastet also symbolized the moon, so it was fitting that the cat, with its nocturnal nature should be matched with the goddess. (Turner, 152-3)

When the cult of Bastet reached its prominence around 950 B.C., the role of the cat in society was very important. Many Egyptians owned pet cats and worshiped their presence. In fact, when a pet cat died, the whole family would mourn and shave their eyebrows to show respect. The animals were embalmed, mummified, and buried in special cat cemeteries. The death of a cat was a capital offense at the time, even if it was accidental. Consequently, people were often seen fleeing any area containing a dead cat for fear of being perceived as responsible for the death.

Felines were so revered in ancient Egypt that the Egyptians attempted to keep all domestic cats within Egypt. Missions were sent out to neighboring lands to buy back cats that had been exported illegally. However, eventually cats did spread to other parts of the world as other peoples learned the advantages of domestic cats. They became valued for their ability to control vermin as well as their affectionate nature.

The spread of the cat in Europe was mainly due to the Romans, who had decided that the animals were more effective hunters than ferrets (which had been previously used to control vermin). They introduced the felines throughout their conquered lands. From there cats traveled with sailors and traders around the world in order to control rats on ships.

When Christianity began take hold in the Roman Empire, the role of the cat was greatly diminished. Since the cat was still considered an important part of many pagan religions, the church attempted to and succeeded in changing perceptions of the animal. In the middle ages and through the present day, cats were viewed fairly negatively. They were known as cunning animals, which were often associated with witches and witchcraft. In many place stray cats were hunted and killed for fear that they might be witches in disguise or that they might be involved in pagan rituals. Even today, many people still believe that black cats bring bad luck. However, perceptions seem to be changing back in favor of the cat as it is now overtaking the dog as the most popular pet in the world.(Turner, 151-158)

Cats in Australia

It has been speculated that cats were first introduced into Australia's environment during the 17th century. It is very probable that they escaped during shipwrecks of the Dutch ships which carried them on board to control vermin problems. When Australia was colonized, settlers brought cats with them in as pets and in order to control pests. However, many animals managed to escape captivity and by the 1850's colonies of feral cats were already established in the wild. Feral cats are domestic cats that have somehow found their way back into the wild. They are often cats that have been abandoned by their owners, have escaped, or are born in the wild. Yet in the 1850's people were quite happy to have a large number of cats around so that the cats would eliminate the large quantities of rats, mice, and rabbits which endangered crop yields. In fact, in the late 1800's the creatures were purposely introduced into Australia's wilds. (ANCA, 1)

The numbers of cats in Australia has grown so rapidly that they have begun to represent a danger for the environment. The average female cat becomes sexually mature after one year and will have two litters a year (but may have up to four), each of whom averages four kittens. (ANCA, 1) These phenomenal mating patterns, coupled with the availability of vast amounts of food have led the feline population of Australia to balloon at an almost uncontrollable rate. It is now estimated that there are over 12 million feral cats now living in Australia. The United States also shares this problem with an estimated 60 million feral cats. Britain only has one million feral cats. In addition to these, there are also countless domestic cats, which are kept as pets. (Hartwell #2, 1)

These cats are voracious hunters. Most hunt even when there are not hungry and many kill more food than they could possibly eat. Domestic cats, despite being well fed also hunt and kill wild animals. Cats hunt animals which are roughly their equivalents in size and weight as well as smaller creatures. In Australia, they tend to prey on mammals weighing up to 2 kilograms and birds weighing up to three and a half kilograms. However, most of their prey is comprised of smaller species that weigh less than 220 grams. Feral cats may kill as many as 1000 animals per year, while domestic animals kill around 25 animals per year. (Hill, 1-2)

Australia's feral cats prey on "pests" (rats, mice and rabbits) for the most part. However, in absence of those animals, cats will attack any animal which is within their size range. The can feed on small mammals, birds, reptiles, or even insects. Among the species which they prey on are several endangered species which are indigenous to Australia (wallabies, finches, and bandicoots). It is these attacks which are causing the backlash against the felines. (Mydans, 2)

The main problem is that there are too many cats. Since the other animals in the eco-system did not evolve with the capacity to defend themselves against cats, cats are disproportionately successful hunters. This phenomenon is quite common wherever humans have introduced species into an environment to which they are not indigenous. For example, Australia also suffers from the over population of another introduced species, the European rabbit. Attempts have been made to slow the growth of these populations but the feral cat colonies seem to be too well established to be reduced. Never the less, Australians seem to have declared war on the creatures.

There have been a series of proposals on how to limit the environmental damage caused by the cats, most of which have to do with reducing their numbers. Among these ideas have been poisoning the cats, neutering them, capturing them and killing them, and introducing a deadly disease to curb their numbers. The problem is that if the cats eliminated from one area alone, they will likely migrate from another area to take the place of the cats that had been eliminated. Therefore, it is necessary to eliminate them all over the island. Unfortunately, reducing their numbers would only be a temporary solution since a single pair of breeding cats, which can have two or more litters per year, can exponentially produce 420,000 offspring over a seven-year period. (Hartwell #1, 1-2)

Furthermore, it is likely that any of the plans mentioned above would have drastic side effects on the eco-systems which the cats are now part of. Poisoning the cats might adversely affect the scavengers which feed on dead cats. A disease would only temporarily decrease the number of cats but would eventually bring back a group of much stronger cats. It might also infect other animals, perhaps even the ones which it is designed to protect. The other options do not seem feasible because they can only eliminate small numbers of cats at a time. These numbers would quickly be replaced by migrating cats or new kittens. (Hartwell #1, 1-3)

3. Related Cases (Note: These are on the TED website)

Afrdog Case: Dogs and Lions in the Serengeti
Tiger Case: Asian Tiger Trade
Tigerind Case: Tiger Trade from India
Rabbit Case: Australian Rabbit Poisoning
Perch Case: Environmental Damage by the Nile Perch
Victoria Case: Lake Victoria's Environment Nutria Case: Nutria Introduction into Southern U.S.
Ballast Case: Zebra Mussel Introduction into Great Lakes

4. Draft Author: Michele Ameri (May, 1997)

II. Legal Clusters

5. Discourse and Status: DISagree and ALLEGE

There exist a wide range of opinions on how the feral cat problem should be addressed, or even whether such a problem really exists. So far, only sub-national solutions have been attempted, but there exist factions of the Australian national government which are advocating a national solution. The new budget of Australia includes additional funding for the Endangered Species Program which, among other things, will allow for the development of Threat Abatement Plans for foxes, goats, rabbits and feral cats. Such plans will likely lead to further attempts to create national legislation.

Much of the debate around feline eradication programs focuses around the necessity of such programs. There is still no way of calculating effectively how much of the damage the cats are responsible for and how much of it was caused by humans or other animals. It is estimated that at least part of the damage to endangered species populations has come at the hands of human land development projects. (Hartwell#3, 1-3)

There has also been a great deal of speculation as to whether it is even possible to reduce feline populations in Australia. The wide range of proposed solution includes such ideas as neuter and release programs, capture and euthanization programs, and even feline disease introduction programs. However, with the rate of cat reproduction being so high, these programs would have to be incredibly quick to have any effect at all on the population numbers. So far, the government has not taken a firm position as to which strategy it favors. (Hartwell #1, 1-3)

6. Forum and Scope: Australian Parliament and UNILAT

7. Decision Breadth: 1 (Australia)

Although other nations, such as the United States are affected by the introduction of feral cats into their eco-systems, Australia remains the only country where the problem has reached these proportions. The United States has an estimated 60 million feral cats as well as 60 million pet cats. Since their exist a greater number of creatures willing to prey on cats, they face a more hostile environment in the American wilderness, making them less of a problem for the environment. (Hartwell#2)

8. Legal Standing: SUBLAW

Several parts of Australia have already developed some form of legislation to control the cat problem. The first cat registration and curfew was introduced in Sherbrooke, Victoria in 1992. Since then, cat regulations have sprung up all over the continent. Many regions require cats to be registered and almost all set a curfew on domestic cats so that they will not be allowed to hunt during the night hours, when the most damage is done. Sherbrooke also encourages the neutering of cats in its legislation by drastically differing the registration fees for neutered and non-neutered cats. They are even considering the compulsory neutering of all cats which are not registered as breeding stock. (Hartwell #3, 3-4)

III. Geographic Clusters

9. Geographic Locations

a. Geographic Domain: Asia

b. Geographic Site: Australia

c. Geographic Impact: Australia

10. Sub-National Factors: NO

Feral cats are a national problem in Australia and are present throughout the island.

11. Type of Habitat: Dry Steppes and Desert [DRY]

IV. TradeClusters

12. Type of Measure: Regulatory Ban [REGBAN]

13. Direct v. Indirect Impacts: Impact Indirect

The trade of cats has an indirect effect on Australia's environment. Domestic cats which are released or have escaped (feral) are by far the most fearsome hunters and therefore responsible for most of the damage. Likewise, the regulations which have been imposed against cats, as well as the negative publicity which cats in general are receiving due to the extinction of species which they hunt will indirectly affect the future of the domestic cat trade. People are much less likely to buy and keep cats as pets if they are perceived as threatening. The negative publicity which the species has received has already drastically altered how they are perceived. "75 percent of Australians view cats as virtually as distasteful as Lucifer himself" stated Hugh Wirth of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Mydans, 2)

14. Relation of Trade Measure to Environmental Impact

a. Directly Related to Product: YES, Cats

b. Indirectly Related to Product: NO

c. Not Related to Product: NO

d. Related to Process: YES [Species Loss Land]

15. Trade Product Identification: CATS

16. Economic Data

17. Impact of Trade Restriction: MEDIUM

A professionally bred cat can cost $300 to $400 (US). Care can cost an average of $150 a year to arrange for all of the necessary vaccinations. There are also a wide range of costs attached to one time procedures like neutering and for everyday things like feeding. In many parts of Australia, registration fees for cat ownership are also common.

18. Industry Sector: ENTERTAINMENT

The industry that is being affected is the pet industry.

19. Exporters and Importer: MANY and AUSTRALIA

V. Environment Clusters

20. Environmental Problem Type: Species Loss Land [SPLL]

Feral cats may be responsible, fully or in part, for the extinction, near extinction, or local extinction of thirty-nine different species in Australia (Mydans, 1). Some of the species are to be found nowhere else in the world. Among these species are such well-known species as the pig-footed bandicoot, the brush-tailed bettong, the rufous-hare wallaby, the numbat, and the gouldian finch. Many of these animals, such as the wallaby are now being bred in captivity to avoid their extinction (ANCA, 1).

Cats also represent a danger because they can carry a variety of diseases which can harm native animals. They have been known to carry rabies, toxoplasmosis, sarcosporidiosis, and ringworm. Birds and the small mammals hunted by cats are particularly susceptible to these diseases, many of whom may be transmitted by a mere scratch. Human beings are also at risk. (Ficarra, 1)

21. Name, Type, and Diversity of Species

Name: CATS (Felis Carnivorous)


22. Resource Impact and Effect: Species and MEDIUM

The exact effect that feral cats have on the environment is hard to gauge. Most experts agree however, that it is fairly sizable. However, it has been estimated by one expert that cars may actually be a greater threat to Australia's fauna. He argues that if one multiplies the amount of animals killed on one mile of road during one year by the number of miles of paved road in the country, the amount far surpasses the amount of animals killed by cats. In addition, if some of the more elevated claims of how many animals cats kill per year were correct, there would be no small native animals left today. Development projects are thought to share much of the blame for the damage which has been attributed to feline predators. (Hartwell #3,1-4)

23. Urgency of Problem: HIGH

With thirty-nine species in imminent danger, the feral cat dilemma needs to be resolved as soon as possible.

24. Substitutes: Like Products

It has been suggested that Australians give up their beloved felines in order to adopt indigenous animals as pets. Some marsupials, in particular, have been suggested as worthy alternative pets. Bandicoots and quolls are both capable of controlling vermin problems and can be house-trained. The platypus might also make a good house pet as a replacement for a cat even though it does not eat vermin.(Mydans 1-3) If the indigenous animals were used instead of cats, the chances of being able decreasing the feral populations permanently would be much higher. However, replacing household cats without eliminating the feral cats would probably have a very limited effect on the environment as the feral cats are much better hunters.

Those Australians who remain unwilling to part with their beloved felines should be allowed to maintain them, as long as they are kept inside at night to make sure they don't hunt and neutered to make sure that they don't increase the feral population.

VI. Other Factors

25. Culture: NO

26. Trans-Boundary Issues: NO

27. Rights: NO

28. Relevant Literature

Sources of Information on the Web

Ferals in UCSC Reserves
The Feral Cat Coalition

Sources Cited

1. Hartwell, Sarah. "Why Feral Eradication Won't Work", 1992 @
2. Hartwell, Sarah . "The American Feral Cat Problem", 1994 @
3. Hartwell, Sarah . "The Great Australian Cat Dilemma", 1994 @
4 .Hill, Robert. "Feral Cats Pose Threat to Native Mammals and Birds", Press release, 9/23/96, @
5. Progressive Animal Welfare Society "Cats and Wildlife", @
6. Australian Nature Conservation Agency. "Feral Cats", @
7. Feral Cat Coalition. "Feral Colony Management and Control" @
8. Mydans, Seth. "For Australia's Errant Cats, Nine Live May Not be Enough" The New York Times, 1/28/97, p.A1.
9. Turner, Dennis C. and Patrick Bateson, eds. The Domestic Cat, The Biology of its Behavior. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 1988
10. Bradshaw, John W.. The Behavior of the Domestic Cat. CAB International, 1992
11. Ficarra, Alysha. "Feral Cats, Why They Need to Be Controlled" @