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​Are Cats Contributing to the Australian Bushfires?

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Cats are bad for the planet, according to some. Cats with free range in the US alone are estimated to kill approximately 3.7 billion birds each year, along with 20.7 billion small mammals. In many circles, cats have a bad reputation and are not considered with high regard.

Now our beloved feline friends are being accused of causing extra problems in Australia as the bushfires continue to reap devastating destruction across the continent. Scientists investigating the ecological disaster have discovered that surviving cats are hunting across the burned areas picking off the injured and weakened wildlife. In fact, in one study a feral cat travelled 19 miles to reach a scorched area, believed to have been using a combination of sight and smell to find the areas affected by bushfires. Scientists also found that the roaming cats were spending up to 50 days away hunting on the barren land.

A second study involved 23 feral cats, each one wearing a camera attached to a collar. During the study 101 hunting events were captured, of which 32 were successful kills. That is the equivalent of each cat killing 7.2 animals within a 24-hour period. Most the time the cats did not eat their prey. The hunts were especially successful while hunting in areas that were open, including the burned lands that had fallen foul of the bushfires. In those areas the success rate was 70%.

A further study showed that the cats would avoid burned land after about three months. It is thought that the reason for this was due to the regrowth in the area or that their prey had been wiped out and the cats decided to move on to new pastures.

Keep Your Cats Contained

Cats are not native to Australia and they are known to cause serious problems. A few months back we covered the story that Australia was considering a cat cull and making it mandatory for cat owners to keep their cats indoors or in cat containment systems. This is down to the devastating impact cats have on the native species of Australia. Those species have not had the time to evolve escape and avoidance behaviours, making them easy prey for the natural hunters.

Hunting on the Scorched Lands

The extreme nature of the current bushfires is devastating for the wildlife of Australia. Biologist Sarah Legge who is studying the impact of feral cats after bushfires expressed her fears, stating that ‘In terms of the potential for recovery, that’s something that worries us a lot’. The land that once burnt every 30 to 100 years have now burned three or four times in the last 20 years. This means the land isn’t given enough time to recover, which could result in whole ecosystem failing and transforming into something else.

Scientists are unable to know what the damage caused by the massive bushfires until they have a chance to go and study the land. They do know that feral cats and other predators seek out the areas to hunt. One study discovered some birds were picking up burning sticks to start fires and flush out victims making them easier to catch. Cats are clever hunters, they wait and watch the land until they have caught all the prey, which is a huge concern.

Helping the Wildlife Survive and Recover

Australia is trying to help save as many surviving animals as possible. Feeding stations are being opened and vegetables are even being airdropped into areas to help. The hope is to help as many animals survive to help the natural recovery process and stop potential extinctions in those areas. The Kangaroo Island dunnart is a rare species that has lost 95% of the species to the fires. So far, they have found one survivor and it is hoped that they can find at least another and successfully breed more. The dunnart will hopefully make a return to the Island in healthy numbers, but Legge and others are hoping that the cats don’t make it to Kangaroo Island first. 

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