The animals in Australia’s Northern Territory tend to be bigger than wildlife elsewhere, so when reports emerged that thousands of feral cats, weighing up to 45 pounds, were roaming around and tearing apart anything smaller than them, it wasn’t exactly...
Photo by Jake Weigl
The animals in Australia’s Northern Territory tend to be bigger and stranger than wildlife elsewhere, so when reports emerged in June that thousands of feral cats, reportedly weighing up to 45 pounds, were roaming around and tearing apart anything smaller and less mean than them, it wasn’t exactly a shock. But it is a problem—the cats are growing bigger and bigger and killing so many small critters, they’re damaging the biodiversity of the ecosystem.
Graeme Gillespie, the director of terrestrial ecosystems for the Northern Territory Department of Land Resource Management, didn’t seem terribly worried about the size of the cats when I called him—he said they aren’t really much bigger than the biggest domestic cats—but he acknowledged there was a problem. “Even a small cat will eat several birds, reptiles, or mammals in a 24-hour period,” he said. “So you do the math on that, one cat might be eating 2,000 animals a year.”
Georgia Vallance, a researcher who has seen the stomachs of these cats cut open for analysis, agreed. “The amount of animals inside these cats is staggering,” she said. “One that was culled had the remains of two sugar gliders, a velvet gecko, a bird, and some insects—that’s just one cat, over one day.”
Tracking and studying the massive felines is much harder than you’d think, given their size. “They’re very secretive, very cryptic, they’re solitary animals, and mostly nocturnal,” Graeme explained. “They’re very hard to trap, and if you trap a feral cat once, that cat will remember it and avoid traps in the future.”
So, following what might be described as basic Warner Bros. cartoon logic, the scientists are bringing in dogs. Dean Yirbarbuk, the chairman of the Warddeken ranger group, told a local news website that the canines “specialize in cats… They chase the cats, they catch them in the tree so we can tranquilize them or catch them somehow, so we put a radio collar on them and track them with a beacon.”
Graeme stressed that these cat-trapping dogs needed to be the best of the best. “Not all dogs can do it,” he said. “Certain breeds of dogs can do it, and certain individual dogs within those breeds can do this. You might train three or four dogs, and only one of them works, so it’s quite specialized.”
I asked him if there weren’t more sophisticated ways to kill a cat—can’t you use drones for this?—and he reminded me that canines were bred over thousands of years to hunt like this. “They’ve got a sense of smell and a sense of taste that is more than 100,000 times more powerful than ours, so they can follow tracks extremely effectively.”
The project has been met with universal enthusiasm, not only as an ingenious way to tackle an environmental concern, but also as a showdown between two of history’s greatest rivals.
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