According to an article by John Yeld (Sunday Argus, 27 March, 2011), feral cats are responsible for destroying the environment on Marion Island. Although it has been described as “South Africa’s most successful large-scale conservation project,” the eradication of thousands of feral cats from Marion Island came at a huge cost. It took more than 30 years of protracted effort using a variety of inhumane methods including the introduction of viruses, poisoning, the use of dogs and finally hunting teams with semi-automatic shotguns to kill off the cats.
The last cat was killed in 1991 yet several bird species on the island continue to decline. Another article also published on the 27th of March 2011, (Sunday Times Lifestyle), claims that Marion Island has been damaged by climate change. Along with fishing in the Southern Ocean, global warming has impacted negatively on the food source of birds such as penguins. Marion Island is currently experiencing a major rodent infestation problem and authorities claim it will be too expensive to eliminate them in the same way as the feral cats. (Sunday Argus, 3 April 2011)
During the 1800s, sailors occupied the island because of the fur and blubber trade. Of course, the ships brought rats to the island, so the sailors brought cats to the island; (they also brought rabbits for a source of food). In 1997, the island was deemed a world heritage site, and by 2000, all feral cats were eradicated. Today, with no cats, the rabbits are destroying the island’s vegetation, and leaving the native penguin population more susceptible to predators. Conservationists are now eradicating the rabbits; which is estimated to cost $17 million.
Sound familiar? A similar situation emerged when the feral cats were removed from Robben Island.
In 2008, a colony of feral cats were trapped and relocated because of concerns for the local shore birds. However, after removing the cats, the town quickly faced an even bigger problem… skunks! The cats’ presence was keeping the skunks away, but now with no cats in town, the skunks are free to roam. Cape May is now deciding what to do about their “skunk problem,” as well as continuing to debate over how to manage feral cat populations.
In the 1960s, cats were introduced for rodent control on the US military base. From 1996 to 2004, most of the cats were eradicated, allowing the local rodent population to increase “quickly to the point of becoming a conspicuous nuisance.” Today, rodents continue to be “controlled” and two cats have since been sighted on the island; although, no reproduction has been reported.
Australian Environmentalist Frankie Seymour explains that, “Reducing a population of mislocated animals is a complete waste of time (and money) unless you are prepared to keep on reducing it—killing and killing and killing, generation after generation. The moment you turn your back for a year or a season, the population will return to full occupation of all available niches.” In addition, Seymour points out, “What is more, when you kill animals to control their numbers, you are constantly culling for individuals who are clever or fast or strong enough to thwart your attempts to kill them – and they pass those faster, smarter, stronger genes (as well as their experiential knowledge) on to their offspring. This is basic Darwinism – survival of the fittest – yet the thought of it does not seem to have entered the heads of those who advocate lethal control of ‘feral’ animals.”
Sound familiar? Is this not what has happened with the Table Mountain tahrs?
Frankie Seymour also discusses the “ungentle art of scape-goating and witch hunting” and points out “a number of sociological hallmarks that…give the whole business [of eradicating feral cats] away as a con job–and, indeed, as a classic witch hunt”. One hallmark is the targeting of cats themselves. European culture has a long history of demonizing cats and although dogs were also sometimes targeted, it was never to the same extent as cats. Demonizing the pets of single, propertied women was just one of a number of standard ploys for proving the women were witches so that the State could seize their property. You just decided a woman’s dog or cat was a familiar and there you had it, instant proof. What is interesting is that there was a gender pattern then, which still continues today. The ‘cat lady’ stereotype persists and the majority of people caring for stray cats are overwhelmingly female. With the exception of wildlife biologist Roger Tabor, (www.rogertabor.co.uk) it seems that many of those ‘conservationists’ opposed to cats and who want to ban looking after them, are male.
It is thus evident that several studies on the impact of cats (especially ferals) on birds and wildlife have been done and come to different conclusions. The inarguable reality is that people, not cats, have most significantly damaged the environment, habitats and ecosystems and have done far more to endanger and eliminate bird species and wildlife. Even in terms of the worst case scenario, the effect of cats on wildlife and bird populations is minute compared to the effect of people. Habitat destruction, radio towers, pesticides, pollution, and window and airplane collisions are the main causes for the decline in bird populations, not cat predation. In the words of Roger Tabor, who is considered by his peers to be one of the world’s leading experts on cats and has studied feral cats for over 30 years: “the clear leading animal that’s really putting wildlife at risk is the human population. We just don’t like to acknowledge that it is our fault. It’s not a case of the cat being the worst offender. It isn’t even remotely the worst offender. It’s us.”