n the deep winter weeks of last July, Shane Morse and Kevin Figliomeni nearly always got up before the sun rose. They awoke next to the remains of a campfire or, occasionally, in a roadside motel, and in the darkness before dawn they began unloading poisoned sausage from their refrigerated truck. The sausage was for killing cats. One morning near the end of the season, Morse and Figliomeni left the Kalbarri Motor Hotel on the remote western coast of Australia, where they dined on steak and shellfish the night before, and drove along the squally coastline. They kept their eyes fixed to the sky. If it rained, there would be no baiting that day.
‘Recent extinction rates in Australia are unparalleled. It’s calamitous.’
He meant meal-sized for cats. Ever since he realized, while he was doing fieldwork in the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, that there were ever fewer native mammals to observe — precipitating what some have called the second wave of extinctions, after the initial impact of the First Fleet’s arrival — Woinarski has published a series of research papers looking at the effects of cats on wildlife. His findings have been disquieting. In addition to mammals, cats kill an estimated 377 million birds and 649 million reptiles every year in Australia. (In the United States, the numbers are even more striking: Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals every year.) On the evolutionarily sheltered continent of Australia, their presence represents one of the greatest threats to the continued existence of certain small mammals. “Feral cats are a real menace and a very significant threat to the health of our ecosystem,” Australia’s former environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, told me.Yellowstone
after Australia unveiled its plan, a bowhunter named Zach Williams shot four feral cats at the request of a property owner. They were the first feral cats he had ever killed, and when he took photos to commemorate the event, which he later posted on Instagram, he posed just as he did with his other hunting trophies: gripping his compound bow on one side, holding up the dead cats by their tails and grinning into the camera. The pictures caught the eye of a producer from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is how Williams wound up taking a television camera crew with him when he and his friend Aaron Wilksch went out hunting on Kangaroo Island, one of the five islands selected by the national government to be made feral-cat-free. Sheep and lambs are the most important agricultural commodity for the island, and cats are the sole carriers of a parasite, called toxoplasma gondii, that causes miscarriages in sheep. (The parasite infects humans, too, but the effects of it are less clear.) Cats also carry a sarcocyst parasite, which causes sheep to develop white cysts that bring down their value at the slaughterhouse. The bowhunters aren’t formally part of the government program, but support for getting rid of cats on the island is high, and they usually get permission to hunt on private property.