Australia kills millions of feral cats and foxes a year. These conservationists say it’s wrong.
The shearwater washed ashore in big surf. Half-dead, perhaps from a long flight or failed fishing expedition, it staggered up the beach. Most of the other young ones had already taken wing, beginning the 16,000 km odyssey to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. Their parents had already left weeks earlier, as the weather cooled in April. And now this young one was on its own, on a lonely beach on Phillip Island’s Cape Woolamai.
Well, almost alone. My 6-year-old son was watching eagerly. We had promised him the chance to see shearwaters migrating. But instead, he watched as other watchers moved in. Hulking Pacific gulls edged closer, cruel beaks open. He’d already seen the bodies of other shearwaters, stripped of flesh, seen the gulls waiting for the smaller birds to be washed ashore.
He screamed. “Save it Dad.” What could I do? Of course I had to. We were witnessing an act of predation. There were billions that we would never see. But this one we did. This one we could alter.
So I shooed off the gulls, scooped up the shearwater and placed it in an unused burrow nearby. We left a little bit of ham for it. “We could disguise it a little, to keep it safe from foxes,” I said. My son looked at me aghast. There were other threats? Other killers? Was nowhere safe?
At that time, I didn’t know that Phillip Island has been forcibly made fox-free, through baiting and sniffer dogs, in a bid to make the island safe again for native animals. So we covered over the burrow. When we came back a day later, the ham and the bird were gone. It could have been a predator, of course. But I gave parental sureties that the injustice had been righted. We had saved a life.
I felt good. My son felt good. We had interfered with nature, defended an underdog. But the episode stuck with him. He wanted to know more and more.
I told him the story of feral Australia, of plucky, beleaguered native fauna under constant attack from foxes and cats. And soon, every night I found myself telling him stories of him and his sister, reimagined as animal rescuers. Saving bandicoots, boodies, bilbies, woylies, quolls, desert mice, lizards, birds, from the hordes of feral cats and foxes that now roam Australia.
As I became interested myself, I started to examine my assumptions. There was a quiet war going on out bush, that was for sure. But were the good guys winning?
Feral animals occupy a curious place in the Australian imaginary. They’re everywhere in our cities– Indian myna birds, pigeons, blackbirds, rabbits, urban foxes, while feral cats, goats, pigs, cane toads, water buffalo, carp, and camels roam rural areas and the outback. But our eyes either skim over them — or fix on them as a problem. An aberration that should not be here. I feel a peculiar sense of wrongness whenever I actually gaze at a feral.
But how did that come to be? How is it that Australia divides the natural world in twain — legitimate native animals and illegitimate destroyers?
When it comes to conservation, Australians have internalised a version of the biblical Fall of Man. In this telling, Australia’s natural world was pristine only two centuries earlier, a land dominated by loud parrots, a dizzying range of lizards, and the world’s last marsupial refuge, a mammal form overtaken by placental mammals elsewhere. Then came Europeans, who unleashed the hordes, which arrived, as scholar Alfred Crosby memorably put it, as a ‘grunting, lowing, neighing, crowing, chirping, snarling, buzzing, self-replicating and world-altering avalanche.’
Foxes and cats began stalking the Australian bush, taking advantage of small predator-unwary marsupials who had never come up against these kind of hunters. Rabbits procreated with such ferocity that they could strip the grass. Their sheer numbers meant the numbers of cats and foxes, too, swelled. Soon, the extinctions began — driven by some combination of feral predation, herbivore competition, hunting and landscape clearing. The desert rat-kangaroo. The pig-footed bandicoot. The lesser bilby. The thylacine. The gastric-brooding frog. The paradise parrot. Gone, gone, gone. And still they disappear. A Tasmanian handfish. The Bramble Cay melomys, an unprepossessing native rat-creature and the first known casualty of climate change. The species next closest to the precipice may be the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart, hit hard by the Black Summer fires. All it would take to polish off the last 50 on the planet would be a few feral predators.
This is why Australia’s approach to ferals is simple: kill them. Kill them all. Cats and foxes, in particular, are killed in their millions. Feral pigs and goats are shot from helicopter or from a ute. Camels are shot or sold to Saudi Arabia. Carp are sold to Poland. And as for rabbits — which hurt farmers in particular — we release viruses that run unchecked through the rabbit population, killing unseen millions.
Five years ago, the Federal Government announced plans to kill two million feral cats. That news triggered outrage amongst animal rights activists around the world, and that outrage was in turn dismissed by many Australians as ignorance of local context. In other countries, feral cats might be bad but tolerable. But in Australia, uniquely, they are extinction machines.
But it’s this application of human morality to the natural world that a new breed of no-kill conservationists find troubling. With their philosophical roots in the animal rights movement, compassionate conservationists decry Australia’s lethal managerialism. Kill to be kind.
In turn, some mainstream conservationists see compassionate conservationists as a new unwanted species in their midst. What, they ask, are we supposed to do? Let the new nature — the one with ferals in it — take its course and wipe out species after species?
Dr Arian Wallach is one of the new breed. Raised in Israel, she came to Australia hoping to do important work in conservation. Instead, she became alarmed by the seeming necessity in mainstream conservation to kill ferals at every opportunity.
When I reach her at her home in rural Queensland, her voice is muffled. She tells me she is grieving for the daughter of a friend.
‘I’m not comfortable with death, not with extinction. Death is part of life. We should grieve when it happens and grieve deeply. But we should not allow that grief to turn into violence,’ she says.
‘Conservation biologists are willing to do things to individual animals that they would not be willing to do to human beings. We can sense we are mitigating human impacts without ever harming humans — and since we don’t consider harming animals a significant moral harm, we are at liberty to use violent, aggressive, harmful methods,’ she says.
Outside the cities where most of us live, there is a quiet war going on. Every day, humans kill wild animals that we deem too good at killing other wild animals. We have picked a side: Natives good, ferals bad.
In the most recent issue of prominent conservation organisation Australian Wildlife Conservancy, there’s a clear declaration of war on cats and foxes: “Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job,” one headline begins. I’m part of this. This year, I have started donating to AWC, the largest private owner of conservation land in Australia. Why? My son wanted me to make the foxes and cats stop killing. And so we donate to the cause — fencing, preserving, killing. My rationalisation is the same as mainstream conservation: ferals must be killed to avert more extinctions.
Wallach argues there has to be a better way.
Conservation, in her view, is still fundamentally anthropocentric. Humans are the ultimate determinants of value — and in Australia, they choose native animals over introduced every time. By defining introduced animals as harmful, we open the door to killing them by poison, gun or trap.
The question is — is it worth it? Wallach and other compassionate conservationists question the notion that killing introduced predators automatically leads to more endangered native animals surviving, given the complexities of the web of life.
‘At the extreme end, you start counting your successes by body count. But you could kill millions of cats — and in doing so, actually increase the population size of cats,’ she says. ‘That’s because when you kill cats, you create a sink and cats from elsewhere move in. They can increase their reproductive rate when their social structure is disrupted, reproducing earlier and at a higher rate and increasing the survival of their young.’
If cats and foxes are killed at high rates, that can lead to a population explosion of rabbits — who can outcompete native herbivores.
‘Let’s say you’ve done everything right. You suppress cats in in a way that doesn’t increase, say, rats too much and you get an increase in threatened animals. How long will you do this for? And is this ethically justifiable? The problem is conservation exists as part of society and society generally doesn’t legitimise mass killing animals no good reason. You do have to justify it,’ she says.
Wallach is sceptical of the theory of predator naivety often advanced to explain why Australia’s native species continue to disappear. In this view, native animals have not co-evolved with predators like foxes and cats, suggesting a rare dusky hopping mouse may not recognise a cat as a threat.
Predation by foxes and cats are named as the major reason for our ongoing second wave of extinctions in a comprehensive review co-authored by one of Australia’s most respected conservation experts, Professor John Woinarski.
But Wallach’s question is — why is there a second wave occurring now? Cats arrived with the First Fleet 232 years ago, and soon left humans behind. You can now find wilder, larger versions of these cats over an estimated 99.8% of the continent, even in the arid zones. Foxes were released for hunting in the 1840s, and took less than 100 years to follow their main prey, rabbits, across most of the continent, bar Tasmania and the humid north. The early onslaught of foxes and cats is thought to have swept away the most vulnerable species, such as ground-nesting birds and mainland populations of the quokka. In the present day, studies estimate cats and foxes kill billions of native animals each year.
‘The evidence for predator naivety is not only weak, but often shown to go in the other direction. [Native species] do recognise these species as a threat,’ Wallach says. ‘If you could ask an Australian mouse if they knew cats were not native — they’d have no idea. Their mothers and grandmothers have been living in a world with cats and foxes. Cats have been with them for generations.’
Instead, Wallach believes recent extinctions and the seemingly inexorable decline of other species has more to do with our war on dingoes, land clearing and grazing pressure from livestock.
‘If you were to protect the predator of cats and foxes — which is dingoes — or if you were to protect forests from land clearing, or rangeland vegetation from grazing pressure from beef cattle, the ability of these animals to handle predation would be much better,’ she says.
‘One of the hardest things for conservationists and for human beings, one of the scariest things is to not-do. It’s our worst fear, to sit back and do nothing. But I just don’t think it’s appropriate for conservationists to be CEOs of the planet. There is a role for conservation — to inspire humanity and to have awe and appreciation for the variety of living beings we are with, and to help society to live with those others. It’s not an easy thing to do. People have trouble co-existing with a possum in the roof, a mouse in the pantry, a dingo that eats a lamb.’
‘In situations where we choose to protect the vulnerable, let’s try not killing apex predators, protecting vegetation, and avoiding bulldozing habitat. People use guard dogs to protect penguin nesting colonies. Let’s get creative. The least creative thing we can do is take out a gun.’
This line of critique from compassionate conservationists is, to put it mildly, controversial amongst other conservation biologists, who bristle at the thought they delight in killing. As conservation biologists put it, the reason people are drawn to conservation is because they like animals and want to protect them.
And there are questions for which compassionate conservation seems to have no answer. In 2018, American nature writer Emma Marris, met Wallach in the desert in South Australia and put a hard question to her.
What, she asked her, should we do with cases like the introduced mice of Gough Island in the Atlantic, which eat the chicks of the threatened Tristan albatross alive? Sit back and watch?
Wallach’s answer, in short? Mice have agency. We are not gods who say who can live or die.
Put like this, do nothing is a hard pill to swallow. It feels like a kind of crime, if you know about it and can change the outcome.
But the debate opens up wider questions about conservation. Do we seek to restore the pristine ecosystems that — at least in our imaginary — existed before European intervention? Or do we wrestle with the idea that what is done can largely not be undone? Do we look for ways of accommodating ferals — differentiating between extinction-causing ferals and those more benign?
The question, to me, resembles one of original sin. Animals are born here that we determine do not fit. And from that judgment, we deploy men on the back of utes with spotlights looking for fox or cat eye-shine.
When I ask Wallach who her best critic is, she pauses. Then she cites UNSW Associate Professor Matt Hayward, for his willingness to engage with the issues even amidst at-times heated argument.
That news takes Hayward by surprise. After all, the criticism — animal killer! — can rankle. And beyond that, it’s an unexpected olive branch. It’s fair to say that mainstream conservation biology has treated compassionate conservationists as an invasive species and one that is far from welcome.
Hayward believes the hands-off approach to conservation would still result in mass deaths — it’s just that humans wouldn’t be the ones doing the killing.
‘I agree with Arian in that I don’t want to harm animals. I don’t know anyone who gets into conservation without loving animals. But if we go hands off, that would lead to the existing foxes and cats killing billions of animals each year,’ he says.
‘I’m really concerned about compassionate conservation arguments taking hold. They’re Trumpian — simplistic and attractive, but they just won’t provide the answers we need.’
‘Talking about compassion ignores the lack of compassion to the native animals that will be killed. There will be a homogenisation of fauna and we’ll end up with foxes, cats, starling and blackbirds — animals that are common overseas but don’t belong in Australia. And lots of extinctions.’
What about the idea of novel ecosystems — assemblies of old and new species, I ask.
Hayward dismisses the idea. ‘A novel ecosystem will probably be homogenous, with a huge loss of biodiversity. Weedy species dominate and you lose all these unusual species. Australia is probably the worst in the world for extinctions. And the problem is the shifting baseline. We no longer recognise what ecosystems should look like. Even national parks are bastions of introduced species.’
For years, Hayward has worked on the problem of quokkas. Despite their high public profile as the Instagram-friendly smiley marsupial, quokkas have the misfortune to sit smack bang in the critical weight range most at risk of extinction. That range — 35 grams to 9 kilos — represents the size of prey feral predators go for — cats smaller, foxes larger.
He remembers watching as newly released quokkas would hop off into areas where foxes had been baited. Every time, he would quietly hope against that this batch would survive. But sooner or later, the radio collar would stop moving. Now, quokkas are all but gone on the mainland and survive mainly as a tourist-friendly relic population on Rottnest Island.
‘It’s a genuine challenge, what we need to do. We have to find mechanisms to extend the lives of natives long enough for us to get mechanisms to control foxes and cats,’ he says.
He doesn’t just mean control. He means removal. For Hayward, foxes and cats in particular have no future in Australia. He is cautiously hopeful about new technologies such as the gene drive — genetic tweaks that spread rapidly through the population and force, say, foxes to only have male offspring.
‘With this, you can have a species breed itself to extinction. We don’t mind if that’s done for mosquitoes. But foxes and cats are seen as cute and cuddly.’
It may sound extreme. But Hayward believes this kind of intervention — which would avoid bullets and bait — is essential, if Australia’s native animals are to have a future.
If gene drives don’t pan out — or hit public turbulence — Hayward argues for more and larger mainland islands, like the huge fenced areas in the Kimberley run by organisations like the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC).
‘If you go to their reserves, you can see the benefit. It’s not just the mammals that have been reintroduced, it’s the soil turnover, which increases water going into the ground and vegetation. It’s an amazing difference between these fenced areas, where ecosystems look like they should. compared to outside, which is dominated by foxes and rabbits,’ he says.
‘Doing this across all climatic zones would ensure we protect all key biodiversity and expand out from there. New Zealand is now looking at a pest free country by 2050, given their rate of eradications. Australia could do that by 2100. So we have to hold on, keep our fauna present until we can do a continent scale eradication — or unless marsupials evolve strategies to cope.’
Evolve? As humans argue and debate over which approach is best or kindest, the cool logic of evolution is at work. Feral cats are larger than their domesticated counterparts. Cane toads at the front of their advance have larger hind legs than those living behind the frontier. And some native species are adapting. Rakali, Australia’s intelligent water rats have learned how to eat the organs of cane toads and leave the poison.
But for many species, adaptation will take more time than they have left. Native herbivores recognise dingo scats as a threat — courtesy of the 3500 years of coexistence. But in contrast to Wallach, Hayward argues they don’t seem to react the same way to cats and foxes, which have been here far less time.
‘Australian soils are so poor that animals can’t invest in a big brain through natural selection. They’ve foregone being clever in favour of surviving. So we have simple animals unable to cope with clever predators,’ he says.
He cites previous failed efforts to try to teach our cute, dumb marsupials the merits of fear. Those bridled nail-tail wallabies taught to recognise fox and cat scents? All dead. The caged quokkas given safe exposure to predators before release? All dead.
Try this experiment.
You are in the red sands of one of Australia’s largest ergs, the Simpson Desert. You see a herd of camels walking single-file, looking for water.
How does your mind frame them? Threat? Problem? Or surprise and awe?
I would see loss — a species not meant to be here, a species taking water and food that would otherwise be used by native species. But Wallach asks me to try seeing it through her eyes — the eyes of someone who was not born here, who was not raised with an anti-feral mentality.
When she sees camels in the Australian desert, she feels a sense of joy. What if, she asks, it was possible to see a land that has the world’s last wild population of camels? In their home nations, camels only exist as domesticated animals. And that sense of loss? Yes, they compact the ground with hard hooves. But what else do they do? They act as nutrient pumps, depositing large quantities of fertility-inducing poo, enriching Australia’s notoriously poor soils.
‘Before I came to Australia, I only saw camels as slaves. Suddenly you see camels walking across the desert — and there may be hundreds of thousands of them,’ she says.
‘This is an animal which is extinct in the wild, and you see them and the stuff they’re doing and you think — wait a minute. There used to be big beasts here that very likely went extinct because of human hunting. Now we are seeing herbivores, churning soil, eating vegetation, leaving dung all over the piece — and you think, my god, the world is wild. Some places are getting poorer [in biodiversity], but others are getting richer.’
‘This view changes everything. Suddenly you go from seeing what Aldo Leopold called a world of wounds to thinking, my god, the world is still wild. And getting wilder, in some respects,’ she says.
This, for Wallach, came as a revelation. When she lived in Israel, she believed the natural world was a dying thing, as many conservationists do. But as a newcomer in Australia, she saw a hybrid ecosystem made up of native and introduced species.
Last year, she and her colleagues examined what Australia’s biodiversity would look like if introduced animals were counted. They found that there were now 52 more vertebrate species in Australian than before colonisation, even accounting for dozens of extinctions. Amazingly, almost a third of these introduced species were — like the dromedary camel — endangered or even extinct in the wild in their home range.
‘This number in no way indicates that non-native species replace or make up for those that have been lost. And it does not exonerate humans of their role in causing extinctions. But the current data do not even allow us to acknowledge that these species exist,’ they write in The Conversation.
Co-author, compassionate conservationist and PhD student Erick Lundgren has been doing pioneering work on novel ecosystems.
What, he asks, is the net effect when introduced and native species combine? What is lost? And what is gained? As you’d expect, it’s the gained part that is controversial.
In 2017, he co-authored research suggesting something radical: introduced animals could be assuming the role of extinct megafauna in ecosystems around the world, even as extinctions of large animals accelerated. This, he and his colleagues suggested, could take the world some way back to type of ecosystems seen in the Pleistocene period of punctuated ice ages which ended around 11,700 years ago.
‘Australia is a new Serengeti. It’s a novel ecosystem of organisms that never interacted before. It’s incredibly rich and diverse with large bodied animals, because of introductions. And yet we enact all sorts of cruelties because of the idea they don’t belong. That’s a value judgment,’ he says.
In Lundgren’s view, there is danger to yellow-tinged nostalgia for an Edenic nature that never was.
‘These animals do really interesting things — but they are rarely studied as they are. It’s almost exclusively from the perspective of harm, as if they built ships to come and pillage, to invade. These introduced animals look so novel compared to the Australia white people encountered. But over the last 60 million years — they fit right in,’ he says.
Until around 40,000 years ago, Australia boasted an astonishing array of megafauna. The two-ton wombat-like diprotodon, giant emu-like bird, enormous six metre goannas far larger than any Komodo dragon, gargantuan pythons — all gone, likely due to a combination of hunting pressure and climatic change. The extinctions were so profound that only a few animals over the Australian megafauna threshold of 45 kg survived, such as the red kangaroo and the saltwater crocodile.
For Lundgren, the loss of these large animals and the nutrient pump role they played suggest major consequences.
‘Fire doesn’t seem to have been as important in Australia until the loss of those animals. The plants drastically changed, from more rainforest to eucalyptus fire ecosystems. Fire is the external expression of what megafauna can do. Animals take nutrients into their body and digest it. Fire is an external digestion. It happens one way or another,’ he says.
And now, the megafauna have returned. Not quite as mega as the Pleistocene. But I remember the sheer surprise of seeing my first deer standing stock-still beside the road into Victoria’s Wilsons Promontory national park. Of coming across a copy of Bacon Busters magazine and gawking at the enormity of the hunted feral pigs on display. Of hearing my dad’s favourite story of chasing and catching a feral goat in the 1970s in Kalbarri national park in Western Australia.
Lundgren frames it as fate.
‘It’s almost like there’s a tracker beam that brings large animals back into ecosystems. Only 10 million years after the dinosaurs, you start getting megafauna again. They play a profound role. Large herbivores can digest plant biomass that smaller bodied herbivores cannot. They can eat wood and low nutrient, high fibre grasses. That has massive implications for wildfires and plant diversity. The importance of body size in ecosystems is profound.’
Human hunting and climatic change are believed to have dispatched megafauna from almost everywhere on earth, from South America’s giant ground sloth to Australia’s ‘demon duck’. All bar Africa, where humanity began.
‘In Africa, we see grazing successions. Zebras graze the fibrous grasses, and the smaller herbivores eat the regrowth. Large animals move more, so they maintain soil fertility and pump nutrients uphill. Without animals, nutrients run downhill and end up in ocean sediments.’
The simple act of a camel taking a dump — scaled up — can spread nutrients much more evenly across a landscape.
‘There’s something fascinating about novel ecosystems as they emerge,’ he says. ‘They’re new, but also ancient — they appear like the past. They give us a window into prehistory at the same time.’
Lundgren has done his time in traditional conservation. After his undergraduate degree, the American-born researcher worked for years as a field tech in Hawaii, another island biome grappling with many introduced species. There, he killed cats by the hundreds and examined their stomachs. But he did not find any endangered bird remains.
The experience turned him off mainstream conservation. Increasingly, he sees the war on ferals as a fantasy. Protect native animals behind high fences and wipe out foxes and cats? Sure — but that keeps the natives there as a museum, not an ecosystem.
‘This is a fantasy of recreating the past by all means necessary. It’s a European guilt cleansing ritual,’ he says.
Who, he asks, are we to say which species belong here?
Take monitor lizards. In many Pacific nations, conservationists have mounted efforts to reduce or even rid islands of these highly effective predators. It had to be done. After all, they had been introduced by humans. Hadn’t they? But in May, a new study showed that was not the case. They had arrived there under their own steam, floating on vegetation mats thousands of years before human.
‘You can’t tell what animals are native or not by their actual effects — but if you brand it non-native, all of its effects are apparently bad,’ Lundgren says.
‘All invasion biology starts with the premise that invasives are bad. If they take up space, if they step on the ground, if you can measure it, it affirms their badness. Because that species is already bad. It has the original sin, the human stain, touched by mankind, and now we kill to purify ourselves. I can’t stand it. Yes, they can cause changes. But that is what animals do,’ he says.
After the interview, I sip coffee and glance at the trees outside. A flutter of wings catches my eye. My son spies the bird and calls out in excitement. I’ve always overlooked introduced pigeons. They seem to occupy a blind spot in my mind — an invisible feral. But my son sees her, excited, and flips through a bird book. She’s a spotted dove. Native to Asia, naturalised in Australia. He watches day by day as she manages to build a nest tucked away under eaves and lays two eggs. My son stands on my shoulders every day to peep inside. He sees the eggs hatch, the ungainly fledglings fluffing around the nest. They grow like weeds. One leaves the nest as quickly as it can. But the second young dove does not want to leave safety. So its mother does. It takes two days for the dove to get hungry enough to risk it. And then, as we watch from the window, it departs with a fluttering of wings. Out into Australia. The only land it has ever known, or ever will know.
For conservationist Dr Katherine Moseby, the divide between mainstream conservation and compassionate conservation comes down to a simple question: what do we value? Individuals, or species?
‘Ecologists focus on population and species, while animal welfare groups tend to focus on the individual animals. That’s where you get the mismatch,’ she says.
‘I admire the sentiment of their movement, but the practical reality is we can’t always do no harm in ecology. When you’re in the field, you are faced with very tough decisions. If we are releasing threatened species and they’re all killed by feral cats, we have to make a decision. Do we sit back and let that happen and say we should not be harming any animals in our work? Or do we say no, ferals are introduced and overabundant, and do we choose bilbies?’
‘Compassionate conservation sounds great in theory and gets a lot of support from the public, but the harsh reality is that when you’re the one there faced with a decision, it’s a lot harder to have a theoretical position.’
‘If we do nothing, ferals do the killing. And they are not doing it in a way that is regulated naturally. They haven’t co-evolved with the prey. It’s hyperkilling, hyperimpact. I feel a responsibility here. If we introduced these feral species, we also have a responsibility to control them and minimise their impact. Otherwise what stops us introducing any old species and just letting it rip? I believe there’s a responsibility there for controlling pests we have been responsible for.’
In Moseby’s view, conservationists must reluctantly kill to be kind. Kill to stop species disappearing into nonexistence. And that, she stresses, is not a pleasant job.
‘If you’re there seeing numbers decline dramatically and you see a feral house mice plague affecting your study animals — it’s very emotional for ecologists as well. We feel very emotional about our study species plunging towards extinction. No one I know enjoys killing animals. It’s not why you get into ecology. But it’s a by-product of the job, and we are always looking for ways of reducing deaths.’
It is personal for Moseby, who has spent her career fighting a seemingly impossible battle against the hordes of invasives as chief scientist of South Australia’s pioneering Arid Recovery wildlife reserve.
Two decades ago, she and her husband, Dr John Read, saw what cats and foxes were doing to the native fauna and were horrified. Their work led to the foundation of the reserve, which has progressively expanded. They have done everything from build poison-spraying robots aimed at feral cats through to discovering that some cats are like terminators, killing and killing, while others are far less lethal.
But the fundamental job these reserves do is create islands in a sea of ferals. They rely on predator-proof walls to make the Australian bushland safe. They reintroduce rare animals — the greater stick-nest rat, the bilby, the western-barred bandicoot — and monitor their numbers. The real problem does not go away. Predators and competitor herbivores will be waiting, in the new wild.
Is it true, I ask, that all feral animals are bad? Can their original sin of being introduced ever expunged?
Moseby pauses for this one. She cautiously nominates camels, which she says at low density do less damage to the soil than other hard hoofed animals like goats and donkeys. And she even concedes that rabbits, who have effectively replaced small native herbivore marsupials in many parts of the continent, can still play some ecosystem functions. But, she points out, not at all to the same degree.
Pre-colonisation, Australia was a land of tunnels. The boodie (burrowing bettong) was once the most common macropod on earth. Their industrious burrowing turned over huge quantities of soil as they searched for fungi, tubers and termites. Abandoned burrows could be used by many other mammals for vital shelter from the elements and predators. And half-dug holes left by boodies and bilbies caught decaying leaf litter — perfect for seedling germination. But then came rabbits and a major drought in the 1920s — and the slow-breeding boodies never recovered. Their loss — together with bilbies — has, scientists believe, led to dramatic reductions in soil quality.
What do rabbits do? Eat, breed, and burrow. Their abandoned burrows can also be used for protection. But they do not forage underground for food, and so play less of a role in turning over soil. And their sheer fecundity — with up to seven litters a year — means they bring more predators into being, as foxes and cats breed more to take advantage of abundant prey.
‘Ferals can replace some of their functions. But they certainly can’t replace all of them. Native herbivores have a full suite of ecosystem processes, whereas ferals only partly do that,’ Moseby says.
‘If there were no rabbits, predators would fluctuate in tandem with their prey. There wouldn’t be this hyperpredation.’
Is there an end game, I ask. It seems to me that conservationists are fighting a rear-guard battle — fencing off islands of safety on the mainland or using real islands as last-ditch refuges for the most endangered species. Will Australia be engaged in a war on ferals for the foreseeable future? Or do we have to now acknowledge that most of the introduced species are here for good?
Moseby sighs. ‘You pick your battles with ferals and look at the ones that are causing most damage. But I guess I’m an optimist. I do feel we will be able to control some, with biological controls. We need to keep our ecosystems functioning as well as we can to combat climate change and overgrazing, to keep them as resilient as possible. The best way to do that, to keep those ecological functions ticking along, is natives. They do that better than anyone else.’
Like Hayward, Moseby believes biological controls are essential as a way to give natives breathing space.
Australian authorities first released the myxoma virus in 1950. Though hordes of rabbits died, over the next few decades, this intense selection pressure meant myxomatosis became less lethal. Next came the calicivirus, released in 1996.
What happened after the rabbits died? Nature filled the void, with crest-tailed mulgara — a small carnivorous marsupial — and dusky hopping mice bouncing back. Moseby was there to see it.
‘That was one of the most incredible recoveries, and it was based on biological control for rabbits,’ she says. ‘These things have a lot of investment initially, but not once it’s out in the system.’
Like climate action, there is no silver bullet solution.
And that’s why — perhaps in a concession to the reality that ferals have now been present here for hundreds of years, despite our efforts at control — Moseby and her team have begun to conduct new types of experiments.
‘We can’t get rid of every cat and fox. For compassionate conservationists, their end game is coexistence. So perhaps the work of ecologists is not incompatible,’ she says.
What that would require is human interference at first — and then the decision to step back.
If the problem is that Australian animals seem unable to deal with these kinds of predators, one answer could be to help them learn.
Early research suggests that an accelerated evolution approach may help Australian animals co-evolve with these sleek new predators fast enough to be able to hold their own. The freeze reflex many marsupials do? Deadly when confronted with the nose of a fox. The belated sprint for safety? Useless against the speed and agility of a cat.
So Moseby puts bilbies and boodies in a fenced paddock — and adds predators. Not many. Then she waits and watches.
Now, you might think evolution is something that takes place over aeons. That’s true. But it can also — if conditions are right — produce remarkably quick change. And that, Moseby says, is what they’re starting to see, as the slowest or least wary disappear into the mouths of predators first.
‘We’re seeing if we can get accelerated evolution — and it does offer glimmers of hope. We’re seeing different physical traits and improved survival in bilbies. It’s a long-term prospect — but it certainly suggests that if we can keep them co-existing in wild and control predators to a low density, over time they should develop appropriate anti-predator traits,’ she says.
What are the changes? In bilbies, heightened wariness. More vigilance at the burrow entrance, where cats make many kills. More time under cover — and choosing thicker cover. In bettongs, larger hind feet and larger bodies, which Moseby says indicates they are harder to kill. It’s still too early to know if these changes will last, however.
For Wallach, this could still constitute human interference. But I find myself drawn to the approach. Helping the plucky under-rat! Accelerated evolution! Prey training!
Towards the end of our interview, Moseby mentions dingoes. These canids, she says, can play a key role in controlling ferals. Where dingoes are common, goats, pigs and even kangaroos never reach plague proportions.
Dingoes? It has to be. With the Tasmanian tiger extinct, the devil confined to quarters on the Apple Isle, and quolls now prey for foxes and cats, that leaves only one native top-order predator that could do the job. But Moseby stresses dingoes are no silver bullet — and can, of course, prey on endangered species.
Wallach, too, is big on dingoes. If there are ways of conserving without killing — or at least, with less killing — then that would seem like a win-win.
Long hated by sheep farmers, in particular, Australia’s native canid– introduced from Indonesia or Papua New Guinea and nativised over thousands of years — can, if allowed, play a key role in managing the ballooning population of herbivores, both native and non-native — as well as introduced carnivores. The return of the dingo to a wider range could play a vital role in rebalancing ecosystems teetering on the edge, according to Wallach — as well as traditional conservationists.
But the problem is that some farmers and national park rangers treat dingos as if they are ferals. There is, dingo aficionados claim, a great deal of rubbery thinking in the way we target ‘wild dogs’ — supposedly, the result of domestic dogs interbreeding with dingoes and producing a new, more aggressive feral hybrid. These wild dogs are hunted, hounded, shot and killed. In NSW, for instance, they are classified as pest animals — and that requires farmers to kill them.
So why, asks farmer Elena Swegen, do these wild dogs so closely resemble dingoes?
For years, the NSW water buffalo farmer has undertaken a quiet experiment. Whenever she meets a man who hunts wild dogs, she asks for photos. Everyone keeps trophies and everyone likes sharing them. So she has a collection of around 100 photos dead wild dogs. Strangely, all of them look like dingoes, rebadged to permit their killing.
The reason Swegen does this is that she believes very strongly that the war on dingoes — however they are called — is foolish and counterproductive. It is also personal.
‘That wild dog name — it’s just to justify their mass killing,’ she says.
The war has cost her a beloved and valuable dog, chased down and shot repeatedly by a rifleman on a ute with a rifle. Her dog was on her own property, back when they lived near Goulburn. But according to Swegen, the local hunter — who would frequently brandish his pelts for photos in the local paper– wanted to make his quota of ‘wild dogs.’ Her own dog — which she used to guard her livestock from dingoes — was larger than a dingo.
‘We figured the hunter really wanted to shoot my dog, because it fit really well with the descriptions of wild dogs getting bigger. We had never had a problem with dingoes because we used our dogs. Then we saw 300 pelts on a gate. We read about wild dogs getting bigger and more vicious. But we didn’t really pay attention until that happened to our own dog,’ Swegen said.
The loss of her beloved dog was a hard awakening. She and her husband, Andrei, moved away not long afterwards. And then they began questioning the slaughter of these so-called dogs.
‘We sold that property because it just caused too much grief. We could have sued, but we didn’t. We just left. The man driving through our property was so determined. He didn’t think he was doing the wrong thing. He’d probably never heard of livestock guardian dogs.’
‘For many years, we couldn’t even say anything — even if we did see things were strange and not going the right way. Eventually, we started questioning it more and more because of the effects where dingo control has been running for a long time,’ she says.
Why, they wondered, did Australian farmers rely so heavily on slaughter of predators? Why did they not use livestock guarding dogs, as is common in other parts of the world?
When Swegen and her husband arrived from Russia in 1995, they brought Caucasian shepherd dogs with them. They thought nothing of it. It was simply how Russian farmers dealt with predators, deploying their own musclebound beasts to watch the livestock. In Australia, Swegen farmed sheep, goats, poultry, and dairy cows. And the livestock guardian dogs watched.
‘For hundreds of years, every country would have their own livestock guarding dog for this purpose. They are proven. They do a really good job — they bond with the livestock and stay with them. But it’s just that farmers in Australia are spoiled by not having to deal with a lot of predators.’
Swegen and her husband moved around, finally settling on a property bordering a national park in Bungwahl, north of Newcastle. At first it seemed as if the dingo war had followed. That first year, authorities ran a ‘wild dog’ baiting program. The aftermath was bad, as poison threw existing dingo social structures into disarray. Before the baiting, the more reckless younger dingoes never dared enter their property. Now, with their seniors dead, the survivors came. Swegen had locked up her guardian dogs, not wanting them to die from a misplaced bait.
In one night, the dingoes killed eight sheep, and all the next day, she and Andrei collected half-eaten remains. ‘It was really distressing,’ she says.
Was that enough to make her rethink? Hardly.
‘I don’t blame dingoes. It was our fault the sheep were unprotected. If our guard dogs were with them as always, it wouldn’t have happened. Our dogs are much bigger and more intimidating. It’s not possible for dingoes to come and take them when they’re on the job.’
Since then, baiting has reduced. Dingo populations have bounced back. And Swegen is finally farming the way she wants to without worrying about guns and bait.
Dingoes come out hunting at nights. But with her dogs on guard, they are now, she says, a net positive. Their presence keeps the rabbits, cats and foxes suppressed. They also stop wallabies and kangaroos reaching plague proportions.
‘Dingoes help us farm. They keep the land healthy. In dingo unfriendly country, you have to fight for your pasture with all sorts of grass eating animals. Not here. They do the balancing of populations. It’s quite amazing actually,’ she says.
Researchers recently did DNA ancestry testing on 783 ‘wild dogs’ killed in NSW, and found only five were actual feral dogs. One quarter of those killed were pure dingoes, and overall, most were genetically more than 75% dingo. Hunting tour operators show off the images of the dead wild dogs that bear a curious resemblance to dingoes.
Wallach, too, is very sceptical of the claims of dangerous wild dogs.
‘What government officials have done is say these are not dingoes. These are impure wild dogs, and therefore killable. And it’s not just farmers. Farmers are easier to work with, because their decisions are practical. National park [managers] poison lots of dingoes,’ she says.
‘Within conservation, there’s a kind of holy war going on, and it’s a lot harder to put your gun down for a holy war than for a practical reason. I don’t work in national parks. It’s easier to create protected areas [for dingoes] on farmland.’
Wallach has chosen to live in Mount Perry, a dingo-friendly area of Queensland. Dingo survival is not deliberate — it’s that, like Swegen, the farmers in the area rely heavily on working dogs, who will die in agony if 1080 baits are used.
Livestock farmers in megafauna nations such as Kenya have learned to coexist with lions, leopards and hyenas, by corralling animals at night. For centuries in Europe, special breeds of dogs watched for wolves. Australia, too, could opt for these measures. After all, the dingo is no wolf, bear or lion — it’s 20 kilos. Wallach argues that stopping baiting can solve the problem for large cattle stations, by allowing dingoes to recreate stable territories that lead longer term to lower predation rates, or by relying on guard dogs.
For two years, Wallach helped manage a cattle station in central Australia with her partner. The owners were not comfortable with poison baiting, and wondered if there was any other approach. Wallach introduced predator-friendly farming. But she was struck by how ingrained the accepted wisdom — dingos are killers — was amongst farmers. There was no information about other approaches. There was only one goal: kill, through bullet or bait.
‘There is a social expectation — you do your bit. If you don’t kill dingoes and there is predation on my property — that’s your fault. Government programs support and fund this. Drought support programs often go to killing — and then it gets worse, when you kill dingoes who would otherwise kill the herbivores who would compete with domestic animals for food.’
‘There is a psychological effect here — there’s a problem and you’ve got to do something about it, which generally means killing,’ she says.
She sighs. ‘It can be very difficult to step back and think how to reorganise our approach so the problem doesn’t arise in the first place.’
And then, Wallach is gone. She has grieving to do.