Recreating the Country blog
The choice between,
Scarface Claw and Hush the invisible possum
Lynley Dodd is the author of children’s books about a mischievous cat called Scarface Claw. In his series of books Dodd captures what is both appealing and treacherous about cats. Scarface Claw is a fearless predator and at the same time he is brave and amiable. Here is an extract from one of his books.
Who is the roughest and toughest of cats?
The boldest, the bravest, the fiercest of cats?
Wicked of eye and fiendish of paw, is mighty, magnificent, Scarface Claw.
Scaredy cats tremble and people all shout, whenever this tomcat is out and about.
No matter what happens, whoever might call, there’s nothing that frightens him, nothing at all.
Dodd could be describing any one of the millions of feral and pet cats that inhabit Australia. They are fierce and ferocious killers while being cuddly and charismatic companions.
Therein lies the huge dilemma that faces Australians today. We are confronted with the ongoing loss of our rare and unique wildlife at the ‘hands’ of millions of Scarface Claws.
Mem Fox & Julie Vivas are famous for their children’s book ‘Possum Magic’.
In their story, Hush the invisible possum travels across Australia with her grandma in search of magic foods to make Hush visible again.
Sadly Australian wildlife desperately need a magic potion that makes them invisible to the crafty Scarface Claws.
The cat and the Boodie
Though there is sketchy evidence that cats may have arrived here from Asia up to a century before they arrived with the first fleet, we do know that that they arrived with the convicts and the military in 1788 as ships cats. From this first landing they quickly spread along the eastern seaboard and had established themselves in the wild by the 1820’s
The story of the Boodie illustrates the danger that small mammals faced with the rise of the cat. The Boodie, Bettongia lesueur is a burrowing bettong that was once the most widespread of the continents ‘Lilliputian’ mammals. It was found throughout arid and semi-arid areas of all the states but was declared extinct on the mainland by the mid-20th century. It is now only found on four Western Australian islands. Read more about the Boodie here.
Its demise was largely due to predation by cats and foxes. The loss of the Boodie and other small digging mammals that mixed organic matter into the soil has fundamentally changed the makeup of Australian soils, grassland vegetation and importantly its combustibility in the dry summer months.
For more information about likely benefits provided by small digging mammals to our vegetation click here
The story of the Stephens Island Flightless Wren
In 1894 David Lyall became the first lighthouse keeper on Stephens Island. It’s a small Island just above the south island of New Zealand. Though Lyall was a keen naturalist he thoughtlessly brought his pregnant pet cat ‘Tibbles’ for company.
He began to notice small dead birds left on his doorstep that he didn’t recognise and sent a sample away to be identified. Ornithologists were ecstatic because he had found a new species of wren unique to Stephens Island. Delight turned to disbelief when they discovered that the lighthouse keeper’s cats had wiped them all out.
Other Australian marsupials.
Many of our small mammals are being pushed to the edge of extinction by the rise and rise of the cat. Since the first fleet, 34 unique mammal species have disappeared, never to be seen again. Our report card on extinctions is uncomfortably humiliating with more than 100 mammal species listed as ‘near threatened’ and ‘critical’ by the international Union for Conservation of Nature
Cats are considered to be the single biggest threat to Australian mammals. They hunt, kill and eat bilbies, numbats, quokkas, quolls, bandicoots, birds, lizards and frogs in every corner of the country. The official government source states that ‘there are millions of feral cats in Australia, killing many millions of native animals every day’.
Cats kill how many?
John Woinarski Professor of conservation biology at Charles Darwin University
and one of Australia’s foremost wildlife researches has published a series of research papers looking at the effects of cats on wildlife. His findings are distressing. In addition to mammals, cats kill an estimated 377 million birds and 649 million reptiles every year in Australia.
The long term survival of these small mammals is being threatened by cats;
What’s a bandicoot?
You and I know that a bandicoot is a small Australian mammal, but lots of Australians have no appreciation of this cute little Aussie and how it’s being pushed right to the edge of extinction. That’s the opinion of Katherine Moseby, an ecologist from Adelaide who works with small mammals.
Her view is that “People are unaware because they don’t spend time with native animals. They really love and care about their cats, which is understandable. They don’t really go out and have a wildlife experience. But they look at their cat every day and think: Isn’t it gorgeous? Isn’t it beautiful? A lot of people don’t even know what native animals are. They could go extinct and people wouldn’t even know.”
What a dilemma!
In 2015 when the Australian Government announced their plan to cull 2 million feral cats by 2020, there was an outcry of distress. More than 160,000 signatures appeared on half a dozen online petitions begging Australia to spare the cats.
Leading the charge was actress Brigette Bardot pleading with the environment minister to stop ‘animal genocide’ and spare the cats. Singer Morrisey, formerly of the Smiths, suggested that “idiots rule the earth” and compared the plan to killing two million miniature Cecil the lions.
Read the extraordinary story about Cecil the lion here
Fortunately the minister for the environment had the backbone to persevere and the plan to cull cats went ahead with an estimated 211,560 cats killed during the first 12 months.
Read an excellent article in the New York Times about our extinction crisis here
Three professors make an impassioned plea.
Professor John Woinarski and colleages Professors Sarah Legge from ANU and Stephen Garnett from Charles Darwin Uni asked for ‘An end to endings’.
They proposed 10 recommendations to stop more Australian species going extinct. Read their article in 'The Conversion' here.
In essence they are asking for culture change, respect for nature and long term commitment to repairing the damage that has been done.
Here is a summary of their 10 recommendations;
Extinction is not inevitable. It is a failure, potentially even a crime – a theft from the future that is entirely preventable. We can and should prevent extinctions and safeguard and celebrate the diversity of Australian wildlife.
What can we as individuals do to help?
As a nation we have to ask the hard question - do we care enough about our native fauna to control our cats? I hope the answer is a resounding vote to protect our native fauna.
What an extraordinary difference it would make if every Australian family agreed to keep their pet cat inside at night? Even though the Australian Government is taking action, we all have to do our bit.
Here is a check list for cat owners.
Does your cat?
As lovers of cats it’s time we started taking responsibility for the peril we have released on our wildlife. The cats are blameless, they’re just being cats.
The fault is ours for bringing them here and not controlling them when we knew the damage they were doing and are continuing to do.
We can learn from the experience of the Stephens Island lighthouse keeper and the Boodie – cats are silent super predators and they are busy while we sleep. Keeping our pet cats in at night and tackling feral cats will make native habitat safe for our vulnerable species.
Creating high quality wildlife habitat on farms is a critical part of the solution but if cats continue to roam free on our landscape, we are wasting our time. Our extraordinary wildlife habitats will just become a smorgasbord for feral and pet cats
Scarface Claw might be our lovable companion but when he’s out and about he’s 'wicked of eye and fiendish of paw'.
He’s a super killer of our precious natural heritage that sadly isn’t invisible like Hush the magic possum.
Choosing our own animal totems will help protect and raise the profile of Australian fauna. Read more about it here in Totems for Australians - what is your totem?
Also The re-wilding Australian culture
Stephen Murphy is an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.