When Cats Go Wild
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRALIA
EDGING forward, head lowered, eyes fixed, the predator stalks its quarry. Bunching its legs beneath its body, it pauses. Muscles quiver beneath tawny fur. Then, like an arrow shot from a hunting bow, it hurtles toward the startled prey. With a swipe of its taloned paw, the cat seizes its victim and pins it to the ground.
The venue of this life-and-death struggle is not Africa but Australia. The agile animal is not a mighty lion but a diminutive feline known as the feral cat. In Australia an estimated 12 million feral cats stalk the tropical jungles of the northern cape, the chilly heights of the southern alps, and the burning deserts of the central plains.
What Is a Feral Cat?
Australia’s feral cats look like domestic cats because that is what their ancestors were. Their fur has the same colors—black, white, gray, ginger—and the same patterns, including patches of color, solid colors, or stripes. Feral cats, though, tend to develop a more muscular neck and shoulders than their domestic counterparts. Males weigh between 7 and 14 pounds [3 and 6 kg], and females between 5 and 10 pounds [2 and 4 kg]. While domestic cats are mostly reliant on humans, feral cats are completely self-sufficient and are averse to human contact.
The forebears of these feral cats accompanied the first European settlers to Australia, and during the 19th century, cats spread across the continent. Many cats escaped into the wild. Others were deliberately released during the 1880’s in an effort to curb the rabbit plague that was destroying pasturelands. The cats soon adapted to their new home and became one of the most pervasive of Australia’s many introduced species. Today, feral cats inhabit every corner of Australia, including many of its small outer islands.
Supremely Adaptable Colonizers
Feral cats are prolific breeders. A female will bear a litter of up to seven kittens before she is one year old. She will then produce up to three litters a year, with each litter containing between four and seven kittens. And she will remain fertile for her entire life span of seven or eight years. If she produced just three female and three male offspring each year and her daughters did the same, within seven years one feral cat would potentially have several thousand descendants.
To survive in Australia’s harsh climate, however, more than sheer numbers are needed. The cats often hunt in the cool of the evening or in the early morning. They avoid the heat of the day by sleeping in hollow logs or in rabbit burrows. In addition, feral cats have conquered even the most forbidding deserts because they do not have to drink water to survive—they can obtain all the moisture they need from the flesh of their live prey.
Feral cats also maintain an adaptable diet. Although they prefer rabbit, the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service states: “Cats kill and eat more than 100 native Australian species of birds, 50 mammal and marsupial species, 50 reptile species, and numerous frogs and invertebrate species.” And they have formidable appetites. A male will eat between 5 and 8 percent of his body weight each day. If she is raising kittens, a female will consume up to 20 percent of her body weight daily. On one isolated island, just 375 feral cats consumed 56,000 rabbits and 58,000 seabirds in only one year.
Most of Australia’s native animals are no match for a feral cat. According to the environmental magazine Ecos, it is thought that because of their predatory ways, feral cats are responsible for “the limited success of programs to reintroduce endangered mammals to arid Australia.”
Pet or Pest?
Since the time of ancient Egypt, cats have been popular pets. In Australia, 37 percent of households own at least one cat. Many of these cats are not neutered, and unwanted kittens are sometimes dumped in nearby bushland, where they mature, breed, and boost the feral population.
To prevent a lovable pet from becoming an environmental pest, the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia recommends the following: Keep your cat at home, especially at night. Provide sufficient food. Identify your cat with a collar, tag, or microchip implant. Put three large bells on your cat to warn wildlife. Neuter your cat. Build a cat-proof fence to keep your cat in the yard.
Putting these suggestions into practice costs time and money. But for Australian cat lovers, it may be a small price to pay.
[Picture on page 20]
One of Australia’s 12 million feral cats
Joel Winter/NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Australia
[Picture Credit Line on page 21]
With permission of The Department of Natural Resources and Mines