Australia’s Secret Weapon to Kill Millions of Feral Cats and Save Endangered Marsupials

A special concoction made with kangaroo meat, chicken fat, and a deadly toxin could help rid the continent of a deadly invasive species.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Feb 4, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Australia has a cat problem—a big one.

At least 15 million feral felines wander the continent, chomping down on up to 75 million native Aussie animals every day. The cats have been called the biggest threat facing Australia’s wildlife and have already been linked to as many as 30 extinctions.

Previous attempts to trap and kill cats haven’t been very effective, but now a new solution is on the horizon. It’s called Eradicat—a combination of kangaroo mince, chicken fat, and a deadly poison called 1080, which has proven successful in other attempts to remove invasive species such as rats and mice.

The Western Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife spent the past decade developing Eradicat to make it appeal to finicky feline palates. Under trial conditions, it managed to kill between 70 percent and 80 percent of the cats that consumed it. Representatives for the parks department did not return requests for comment.

The 1080 poison, also known as sodium fluoroacetate, is being hailed as a good solution for the state of Western Australia because it is made from plants that grow in the region.

“The native animals in these areas have evolved a resistance to those compounds through evolving with the plants,” said Dr. Tony Buckmaster of the Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Center at the University of Canberra. “This means that many native animals in WA have an innate resistance to the toxin, which is something that the invasive predators do not have.”

Buckmaster was the lead author of a paper published last year in the journal PLOS One that examined the risk 1080 might pose to native species. The study found that species that did not evolve with the plants would face a greater risk from the poison, but he said the risk would be lower in Western Australia.

The exact nature of the Eradicat deployment has not yet been announced, but Buckminster said it will need to be timed at a point when cats don’t have a lot of other readily available food.

“Most feral cats prefer live prey and will only eat carrion, and therefore baits, when food-stressed,” he said. “This happens during winter, when the prey populations are at their lowest. It also happens during times of drought, when climatic conditions have reduced prey abundance.”

Even once the poison is deployed, other cat-control techniques such as shooting, trapping, and fencing will need to continue. Buckminster said he feels nothing will ever completely eliminate the feral cat problem, but 1080 is an important tool that “can be used to reduce the population to a level where native animals are less at risk and potentially able to thrive.”

Of course not everyone supports the use of 1080. The Australian charity The World League for Protection of Animals calls it “cruel and indiscriminate” and says it can damage ecosystems in which it is applied.

Buckminster acknowledged that “it is simply not possible to guarantee that no nontarget animal will ever take a bait and die,” but he said the risk of not using the bait is higher if cats continue their eating spree unhindered.

“In my view, it becomes a choice—deploy the bait and potentially risk the death of a few native animals, or don’t deploy the bait and guarantee the death of many,” Buckminster said.