Other Animals

POLL: Should the massive culling of feral cats be allowed (with long read)?

In the deep winter weeks of last July, Shane Morse and Kevin Figliomeni nearly always got up before the sun rose. They awoke next to the remains of a campfire or, occasionally, in a roadside motel, and in the darkness before dawn they began unloading poisoned sausage from their refrigerated truck.

The sausage was for killing cats. One morning near the end of the season, Morse and Figliomeni left the Kalbarri Motor Hotel on the remote western coast of Australia, where they dined on steak and shellfish the night before, and drove along the squally coastline. They kept their eyes fixed to the sky. If it rained, there would be no baiting that day.

A member of the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia with a cat he shot. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

Morse and Figliomeni unpacked their boxes, filled with thousands of frozen sausages they produced at a factory south of Perth, according to a recipe developed by a man they jokingly called Dr. Death. It called for kangaroo meat, chicken fat and a mix of herbs and spices, along with a poison — called 1080 — derived from gastrolobium plants and highly lethal to animals, like cats, whose evolutionary paths did not require them to develop a tolerance to it. (The baits would also be lethal to other nonnative species, like foxes.) As the sun brightened the brume, the baits began to defrost.

By midmorning, when Morse helped load them into a wooden crate inside a light twin-engine propeller Beechcraft Baron, they were burnished with a sheen of oil and emitted a stomach-turning fetor. The airplane shot down the runway and lifted over the gently undulating hills of the sand plains that abut the Indian Ocean.

Rising over the mantle of ghostlike smoke bushes that carpeted the ground to the treeless horizon, the plane traced a route over the landscape, its bombardier dropping 50 poisoned sausages every square kilometer. It banked over the deep cinnamon sandstone gorges carved by the Murchison River, which extends to the coastal delta, surveying the edge of one of earth’s driest, hottest continents, where two to six million feral cats roam.

As it flew, it charted the kind of path it had done dozens of times before, carpeting thousands of hectares of land with soft fingers of meat, laying down nearly half a million baits in the course of one month. Dr. Death, whose real name is Dr. Dave Algar and who is the principal research scientist in the Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions for the state of Western Australia, told me that he began developing the recipe for the poisoned sausages by examining cat food in supermarkets and observing which flavors most thrilled his own two cats. As Morse said: “They’ve got to taste good. They are the cat’s last meal.”

These fatal airdrops owed their existence to Australia’s national government, which decided in 2015 to try to kill two million feral cats by 2020, out of grave concern for the nation’s indigenous wildlife — in particular, groups of small, threatened rodent and marsupial species for which cats have become a deadly predator. The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology estimated that 211,560 cats were killed during the first 12 months after the plan was announced. Dropping lethal sausages from the sky is only part of the country’s efforts to eradicate feral cats, which also include trapping, shooting and devising all manner of poison-delivery vessels.

When the policy was announced, it was met in some quarters with apoplexy. More than 160,000 signatures appeared on half a dozen online petitions entreating Australia to spare the cats. Brigitte Bardot wrote a letter — in English, but with an unmistakably French cadence — beseeching the environment minister to stop what she called animal genocide. The singer Morrissey, formerly of the Smiths, lamented that “idiots rule the earth” and said the plan was akin to killing two million miniature Cecil the Lions. Despite anger from some animal rights groups and worries about the potential effects on pet cats, Australia went ahead with its plan, and the threatened-species commissioner replied by mail to both Bardot and Morrissey, politely describing the “delightful creatures” already lost to the world.

After that, Morse and Figliomeni spent much of each baiting season behind the wheel of their rig, hauling boxes to the most remote corners of one of the least populated places in the world, to beat back what Australia has deemed an invasive pest. As is the case on islands around the world, the direction of life in Australia took a distinctly different route than that on the larger continents, and unlike places like North America, the country has no native cat species. Over millions of years of isolation, Australia’s native beasts became accustomed to a different predatory order, so while cats aren’t necessarily more prevalent there than anywhere else, their presence is more ruinous. They have also become nearly ubiquitous: According to the estimates of local conservationists, feral cats have established a permanent foothold across 99.8 percent of the country, with their density reaching up to 100 per square kilometer in some areas. Even places nearly devoid of human settlement, like the remote and craggy Kimberley region, have been found to harbor cats that hunt native animals. The control effort, to which Western Australia’s baiting program belongs, was meant to ease the predation pressure that cats exerted in every corner of the country where they had settled. Faced with a choice between a species regarded as a precious pet and the many small creatures of their unique land, Australians seemed to have decided that guarding the remaining wild might mean they would have to spill some blood.

Cats appeared in human lives seemingly unbidden, sauntering in at the dawn of agricultural settlement but maintaining their distance from total domestication. Archaeological remains from the Fertile Crescent in modern-day Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories point to the presence of Felis silvestris, the wildcat predecessor of Felis catus, but in the beginning they were most likely scavengers attracted to human encampments. Their usefulness around the stores of grains that attracted small rodents probably endeared them to people, and the first evidence of their domestication is a set of remains on Cyprus — where they must have been transported intentionally — dating to around 7500 B.C. A few thousand years later, in nearby Egypt and Greece, they became associated with goddesses and elevated to symbolic objects of veneration. Unlike other animals, bred specifically for consumption or to help with tasks, cats never underwent a targeted taming process as much as they fashioned themselves to fit, however obliquely, into human lives.

Katherine Moseby, an ecologist, carrying traps used to catch quolls, a native marsupial preyed on by feral cats. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

As for how Felis catus first arrived in Australia, no one really knows. For a long time, natural historians conjectured that the first cats may have been survivors of Dutch shipwrecks or stowaways with Indonesian trepangers in the 17th century. But genetic tests have now shown that Australia’s mainland cats descended from more recent European progenitors. One researcher, after combing through the records of early European settlements, traced the cats’ arrival to the area around Sydney, the landing site in 1788 of the First Fleet — the flotilla of vessels carrying the convicts and marines who would begin the colonization of Australia by the English. Having been brought to manage rats on the ships, cats made landfall and, by the 1820s, established themselves on the southeastern seaboard. From there, they spread with astonishing speed. “It is a very remarkable fact that the domestic cat is to be found everywhere throughout the dry back country,” one pastoralist reported in 1885. “I have met with cats, some of enormous size, at least 50 miles from water.”

The cats preyed on small animals that interfered with food production or storage. Creatures like the burrowing bettong, or boodie, a rabbit-size cousin of the kangaroo that has clasped forepaws and a bouncing hop, were so plentiful in the 19th century that they were sold by the dozen for nine pence a head. Recipes for curries made with native animals like bandicoots, another small marsupial, appeared in local newspapers. Boodies were, in the words of the naturalist John Gilbert, “one of the most destructive animals to the garden of the settler that occurs in Western Australia,” because of their practice of building interconnected underground warrens. Found throughout central Australia down to the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula and stretching nearly to the western coast, boodies were one of the most widespread of the continent’s many Lilliputian mammals. Their prodigious digging nearly destabilized railroad tracks in 1908. Then cats were unleashed and, already suffering from disease and fox predation, boodies started to disappear. By the mid-20th century, they were declared extinct in mainland Australia.

It wasn’t just the boodies. If anything, they were lucky — some small groups of burrowing bettongs clung on at a few islands that were relatively sheltered from the ravages visited on the mainland. Since the First Fleet’s arrival, 34 mammal species have gone extinct in Australia. All of them existed nowhere else on earth; they’re gone. More than 100 mammal species in Australia are listed as between “near threatened” and “critical” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The continent has the highest mammal extinction rate in the world. Cats are considered to have been a leading threat for 22 of the extinct species, including the broad-faced potoroo, the crescent nailtail wallaby and the big-eared hopping mouse. “Recent extinction rates in Australia are unparalleled,” John Woinarski, one of Australia’s foremost conservation researchers, told me. “It’s calamitous.”

What’s unusual about Australia’s mammal extinctions is that, in contrast to nearly everywhere else, the smaller animals are the ones hit hardest. After the Pleistocene’s wave of species disappearances carried off enormous creatures like saber-toothed cats and woolly mammoths, large mammals all over the world have continued to face pressure, mostly from humans. Globally, it’s rhinos, elephants and gorillas that are among the most threatened. Not in Australia. There, it’s the desert bandicoot, the Christmas Island pipistrelle and the Nullarbor dwarf bettong that have disappeared. They belong to the category of creatures that, Woinarski noted in his seminal 2015 paper documenting the decline, are “meal-sized.”

Melissa Jensen, a conservationist, with Moseby (right), releasing a western quoll trapped for monitoring. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

He meant meal-sized for cats. Ever since he realized, while he was doing fieldwork in the Kakadu National Park in northern Australia, that there were ever fewer native mammals to observe — precipitating what some have called the second wave of extinctions, after the initial impact of the First Fleet’s arrival — Woinarski has published a series of research papers looking at the effects of cats on wildlife. His findings have been disquieting. In addition to mammals, cats kill an estimated 377 million birds and 649 million reptiles every year in Australia. (In the United States, the numbers are even more striking: Scientists estimate that free-roaming cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds and 6.3 to 22.3 billion mammals every year.) On the evolutionarily sheltered continent of Australia, their presence represents one of the greatest threats to the continued existence of certain small mammals. “Feral cats are a real menace and a very significant threat to the health of our ecosystem,” Australia’s former environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, told me.

That understanding among Australians helps explain why the most ardent opponents of the nation’s cat policy were, in the main, foreigners. Before the strategy was even announced, Australian newspapers were cheering the “bold plan to rescue our little emblems.” One newspaper in the Northern Territory argued for the incorporation of cat stew into the national diet. After Greg Hunt, the environment minister at the time, announced the plan at a zoo, editorials and letters almost universally welcomed it. The issue was framed as a grand scheme to protect Australia’s wildlife, as a war against cats — and, as with any war, it was couched in language about mission and values. Part of something uniquely Australian was under threat, and this is what it would take to save it. Patriots rallied to the cause.

“Even in my industry, I didn’t appreciate the severity of the problem until they started to publicize it,” a Queensland veterinarian named Katria Lovell told me. “Australians have a huge appreciation for our natural fauna. It’s sort of what we’re known for.” She added: “Most people have empathy with the fact that there is all this wildlife being killed and it is taking its toll on the environment, so I think there is a general feeling that something has to be done.” PETA Australia had its reservations, but in principle recognized that feral cats hunted wildlife to a point at which species can no longer survive. Petitions protesting the cull, organized in the United States and Europe, were met with scorn. “Why has someone started a petition to save the feral cats?” one newspaper reader texted to an editor in Queensland. “Pure stupidity as more and more native animals are killed by cats.”

When I asked Frydenberg why Australian politicians didn’t encounter the kind of fallout that has thwarted any similar, albeit local, efforts in the United States, he told me the debate has focused on the impact to wildlife and remained less emotional. “You can have a love for a domestic pet and still recognize the threat they pose to your native environment,” he told me. Alley Cat Allies and other organizations that adhere to a no-kill credo have wielded broad influence in the United States, but they don’t have the same kind of presence in Australia. The country’s threatened-species commissioner pointed out that cats weren’t the first animal to be considered so disruptive that they needed to be eliminated, and Australia has already begun efforts to control other introduced animals like rabbits and foxes.

Moseby examining the corpse of a feral cat. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

“I think in Australia, it might be that they’ve seen the ravages of invasive species before,” Peter Marra, co-author of “Cat Wars,” a 2016 book about the consequences of cats’ proliferation around the globe, told me. “They’ve seen what cats can do, or rabbits; they’ve seen what foxes do, and they’ve lost lots of species already in a short time frame — 50, 60, 70 years. And they’re done with it.”

In June, I met the ecologist Katherine Moseby in Adelaide, and we drove up to Roxby Downs together in her dusty Toyota pickup truck. We were going to visit the Arid Recovery Reserve, a wildlife sanctuary she helped found in the red-sand deserts at the southern edge of central Australia, where she would gather data to finish up some cat studies. As we drove, the landscape transformed from managed green agricultural hills to a dry shrub land dotted with bluebush; the horizon evaporated into distant salt lakes. Moseby and her husband, John Read, have come up with an array of ways to do away with the continent’s cats. They have invented a robot that can recognize a passing cat and eject poison that the cat will later ingest when it grooms itself. They have helped develop a poison polymer strand that is injected into prey species to make them lethal to their predators. (The strands, which look like deflated Good & Plenty candies, are designed to remain inert just under the skin of the prey and activate at the lower pH level found in a predator’s stomach.) Moseby doesn’t relish killing. But in her moral calculus, she has accepted that some cats have to go in order to keep other animals in existence.

Even though Australia’s cat plan didn’t kindle the kind of organized resistance that would put it in peril, many of the country’s cat owners weren’t happy about it. Moseby has tried to emphasize the conservation aspect of the plan, appearing in the country’s newspapers to champion efforts to reintroduce native species to areas from which they have long been absent. But her work eliminating their predators has still rankled people who she says have a stronger connection to cats than to the dwindling pockets of unfamiliar wild creatures.

“Cats really trigger people’s emotions,” Moseby told me, sitting behind the wheel of her truck, littered with the detritus of a peripatetic life. Her house is four hours away from the sanctuary, and as we drove, she told me about the challenge of persuading people to care when they have never heard a bettong emitting its grunting snuffle or seen it hopping through the dunes. “People don’t know what a bandicoot is, because they don’t spend time with native animals,” she said. “They really love and care about their cats, which is understandable. Most people are sitting on their phones, in cities. 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.”

Moseby releases a burrowing bettong trapped on the Arid Recovery Reserve. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

We arrived at the sanctuary a few hours before dusk. Moseby thinks forensic analysis should be applied to figure out cat habits; in her academic work, she has suggested using predator profiling — usually employed to identify polar bears or tigers that have developed a willingness to target humans — to narrow in on individual cats that are especially good at hunting native wildlife. Moseby took some dead cats out of a freezer to defrost for stomach-content analysis and went into the laboratory to swab the remains of a quoll to be sent out for DNA tests. Quolls, a slinky, spotted carnivorous native marsupial, had recently been released at the sanctuary. One had escaped, and its remains were found by one of the resident ecologists. “It was a very uneventful crime scene,” the ecologist, Georgina Neave, told Moseby as they pulled on gloves.

“It wasn’t the tussle site then, was it?” Moseby said. “If it was under a bush, it was likely a cat; they tend to pull them under the bushes.” She took a swab and ran it around a bloodied tracking collar that had been attached to the quoll. “It’s a bit sad, isn’t it?”

A few years earlier, when Moseby was coordinating the reintroduction of quolls to the Flinders Ranges, a belt of peaks about a hundred miles southeast of the sanctuary, there was a moment when she thought the cats simply couldn’t be defeated. She transported dozens of quolls from Western Australia, equipped them with radio collars and released them, and then watched as they were lost to cats and other vagaries. Over months, she built a profile of the cats that learned to hunt quolls by dissecting the cats’ stomachs, observing field cameras set up through the forests and conducting DNA analysis. She called in some volunteer shooters, and she published research on what she called “catastrophic cats,” usually large males that master the art of hunting animals like quolls and go on profligate sprees.

One such cat, a five-kilogram tabby that the scientists named Strauss (after the “Blue Danube” composer), made his way into part of the desert sanctuary and developed the habit of lying in wait outside the bettong warrens. Ecologists at the sanctuary were doing research on whether native species could adapt to some cat predation under controlled circumstances, so they let a few cats into a paddock with bettongs and bilbies, a type of small bandicoot. The cats established territories in the paddock, home ranges that they would scout regularly, loping out on forays to the farthest edges while keeping their hunting grounds to small areas that would periodically change. Strauss quickly became known as an exceptionally effective hunter. “He was one of our most successful bettong killers,” Moseby said. After just three months of watching Strauss wreak havoc on the bettongs, the scientists decided his presence exerted too much pressure on the animals. They dug him out of a bettong tunnel and killed him.

Pat Hodgens, an ecologist, attempting to trap a collared feral cat on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

By putting GPS and VHF collars on cats, scientists all over Australia have realized how little they understand about the creatures they are trying to control. Pat Hodgens, an ecologist on Kangaroo Island, tracked dozens of cats, including one orange cat named Vladimir (after the Russian president) that learned how to hunt for wallabies equal to him in weight. Hodgens’s cats carved out home ranges that he mapped by plotting their movements, but occasionally one of the cats would embark on a long journey to a remote area, only to turn around and come back. Moseby’s cats would occasionally do the same. Neither scientist could figure out exactly what was prompting the quests or how the cats knew their destination — often dozens of miles away. They speculated that the cats might be going to mate or to look for other hunting grounds. But the cats would often undertake the journeys only once, never to conduct an expedition to the site again after returning to their established territories. Perhaps the cats were using their advanced sense of smell, which is powered by a large olfactory bulb in their brain and something called a vomeronasal organ, to detect messages left in the traces deposited by other cats — a system described by the animal-behavior expert John Bradshaw in his 2013 book, “Cat Sense,” as allowing the solitary animals to communicate.

Mostly, though, cats don’t stray beyond their territory for much other than mating. After the first six months of their lives, which they spend first nursing and then learning how to hunt with other kittens in their litter, they usually remain alone. They are wary of new things and have extreme environmental awareness that extends beyond their home range. The size of their territories depends on their hunting prowess, the area they need to acquire enough food and the number of other cats competing for space nearby. They hunt no matter what. Even if they don’t need to eat, they are programmed to stalk available prey. If they kill when they aren’t hungry, they will either eat the most attractive part of the prey animal, usually the soft tissue, try to cache it for later or abandon the carcass altogether. A pristine snout or severed feet missing their corresponding body is a telltale sign of cat predation.

People who hunt and trap cats are convinced that they learn immediately. Once trapped, they are nearly impossible to capture again. Once shot at, they elude the hunter’s tricks. One of Hodgens’s cats, named Barnaby (after the former deputy prime minister of Australia), managed to evade recapture for months after he was collared. “I have the utmost respect for that cat,” Hodgens told me during a scouting mission on Kangaroo Island to locate Barnaby using a radio antenna. At one point, on a seaside crest as dusk fell, we heard Barnaby’s collar beeping. He was just over the beach dunes. “He’s like my nemesis!” Hodgens said. “I know him inside out, and I’ve got enormous amounts of respect for him. He’s smarter than I am.”

One night in the desert, I went with a team of ecologists who were checking traps inside the Arid Recovery sanctuary to collar bettongs for the predation study. In the spectral beam of the truck’s lights against the dark, the canted succulents and bowed branches of hakea trees looked like the waving spindles of a deep-sea reef. Moseby and her colleague had their radio tuned to the frequency of Quoll No.9, which had been missing for a few days. They kept their windows open to the sharp air to observe what was out in the dark. At one point, Moseby stopped the truck and peered out into the middle distance. She had seen a pair of glowing eyes. “You sure it’s a cat?” her colleague asked. She wasn’t sure. It had just been a flash against the silhouette of a shadowy hummock. “You look for so long,” Moseby said, “you start to doubt they’re there.”

A feral cat trapped by Hodgens on Kangaroo Island. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

A few months after Australia unveiled its plan, a bowhunter named Zach Williams shot four feral cats at the request of a property owner. They were the first feral cats he had ever killed, and when he took photos to commemorate the event, which he later posted on Instagram, he posed just as he did with his other hunting trophies: gripping his compound bow on one side, holding up the dead cats by their tails and grinning into the camera. The pictures caught the eye of a producer from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which is how Williams wound up taking a television camera crew with him when he and his friend Aaron Wilksch went out hunting on Kangaroo Island, one of the five islands selected by the national government to be made feral-cat-free. Sheep and lambs are the most important agricultural commodity for the island, and cats are the sole carriers of a parasite, called toxoplasma gondii, that causes miscarriages in sheep. (The parasite infects humans, too, but the effects of it are less clear.) Cats also carry a sarcocyst parasite, which causes sheep to develop white cysts that bring down their value at the slaughterhouse. The bowhunters aren’t formally part of the government program, but support for getting rid of cats on the island is high, and they usually get permission to hunt on private property.

During the ABC segment, a tortoiseshell cat bolted out of a clutch of stubby grasstrees, and Wilksch took aim, hitting the cat in the head. The wounded cat streaked across a clearing, the arrow trailing after it, and became entangled in a fence. Wilksch took another shot. Pierced twice, the cat still freed itself from the fence and ran away.

The program aired on the nightly news and prompted an unprecedented degree of viewer feedback. There had always been pockets of cat lovers who reacted with vitriol to efforts targeting the animals — Dr. Death once had a machete brandished at him while he was canvassing for information on domestic cats; Woinarski, who based his research on databases of stomach contents from dead cats’ innards, has received email from people saying they would like to cut him up — but outrage at the television segment was far more widespread. Even scientists supporting the cull balked at the bowhunters’ methods. Williams, who did most of the talking in front of the television cameras and acted as the face of the hunt, was doxxed by the internet hacktivist group Anonymous, and thousands of people, by his estimate, sent him hate messages and death threats. Killing cats to save endangered species was a simple — if sad — calculation in the abstract. But killing a single cat, and watching it struggle against the assault, seemed like a spectacle of human cruelty.

Even though large-scale baiting, like the sausages dropped from airplanes, has proved effective at reducing the number of cats, often by half or more, it has been individual farmers and shooters who have contributed most to the cause: The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology’s data showed that shooters were responsible for 83 percent of feral-cat deaths nationally in the first year of Australia’s efforts. Most of the shooters carry guns, not bows, but most are, like Williams and Wilksch, hobbyists who devote their free time to the pursuit of wild animals. Williams makes a point of cooking the meat of most of the game he kills, and shooting cats can even imperil the hunters’ aims, if the sounds of pursuit scare away other, usually larger animals. But the feline campaign has sparked a sense of duty within the hunting community — “releasing an arrow never felt so good,” one bowhunter wrote on Facebook next to a photo of a dead cat alongside the brilliant rainbow lorikeet it was in the midst of consuming.

Zach Williams (left) and Aaron Wilksch hunting feral cats on Kangaroo Island. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

I met Williams on a storm-roiled ferry en route to Kangaroo Island, where he was headed to hunt again with Wilksch. A shy young man with the oval face of a Modigliani painting, Williams had a demeanor in person that ran counter to his provocative social-media presence. The next morning, I asked Wilksch what he thought in retrospect about the shot caught by the television crew. “That first shot was about as good as a shot gets,” he told me. “But on television and for the purposes of trying to demonstrate hunting, it wasn’t ideal.” It was a blue-sky Saturday, and I was sitting in the back seat of a pickup truck’s cab as Wilksch eased down the muddy lane of a sheep farm. Williams sat in the passenger seat. They were dressed in fatigues, and two green cans of energy drinks were stowed in the door pocket. The men were scouting for cats. They were very serious. The problem, Wilksch told me, is that contemporary society has tucked all its animal killing safely out of sight, to the point that nonhunters are now unreasonably shocked when they’re forced to see it. “The common misconception is that hunters don’t like animals, which is just completely false,” Williams said. “If we’re shooting something, we want it to be as humane and as quick as possible.”

Nevertheless, most scientists I spoke with said the bowhunters’ methods bothered them, not least because they worried it gave fuel to opponents of the plan — including those who opposed the entire cull approach on principle. A small group of ecologists have questioned the underlying logic of Australia’s cat-eradication plan altogether by criticizing what they see as a bias toward native species. Daniel Ramp, the director of the Center for Compassionate Conservation in Sydney, told me that the country’s cat program is based on unexamined stigmas toward introduced species. “I can’t help but use terms like ‘xenophobia,’ ” Ramp said. “It’s gobsmacking how much hatred there is.” Adherents to compassionate conservation say that Australia should embrace cats as an element of its environment, rather than trying to restore ecosystems to an arbitrary point in history whose selection is dependent on the whims of those doing the choosing. They invert commonly held scientific findings: Native animals like boodies are easy targets for cats not because they evolved without such a predator, Ramp and his colleagues contend; they are more vulnerable to the strongest predators because of the attempts to save them. Compassionate conservationists argue, especially, for the recognition that each individual life is inherently valuable, whether it belongs to a toad or a cat.

But Moseby and Read, like most scientists, believe that they’re already taking the complicated balance of things into account. Inertia on the issue of cats will lead to further extinctions. If the choice is between cherishing the lives of individual animals and fighting to keep entire species from being toppled — to keep the synergistic elements of a chaotic and incomprehensible clockwork together — then the unfortunate letting of some blood is, in their view, unavoidable. Compassionate-conservation proponents have a lot of public support “because people don’t like killing things,” Moseby told me one evening. She was at the house she built, surrounded by mallee trees and filled with prints of her own wildlife photographs: grizzly bears from a trip to Alaska, a small chameleon on an electric-green leaf. “I’m not prepared to sit back and let endangered species go extinct because I don’t want to kill any cats,” she said. “If you follow their line, you’ll end up just with cats and cockroaches.”

Wild Australia stirs after dusk. Once all color has drained from the deserts and forests, the night comes alive. Hunters say they know when they see a cat in the dark by its eyes, which glint green. After weeks spent walking through starlit stands of pine trees and riding through the desert in pickup trucks, I had not seen the telltale flash until I went out one night with some members of the Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia, one of the country’s most influential gun organizations. The association has a conservation division whose volunteers monitor, trap and shoot unwanted animals. In rural Queensland, I met up with Mark W., Mark M. and Damien F. (The three men asked me not to use their last names for fear of reprisal.) A few hours after arriving at a farm in the flat country west of Brisbane, they pulled on extra layers against the cold and loaded up the truck. They departed in the dark of night; the wind smelled of dry leaves.

A hunter opening the digestive tract of a feral cat. Credit Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

To sight in their rifle scopes, they put a piece of cardboard on a tree and fired shots that produced a reverberating roar and a diaphanous orange cloud, ephemeral against the night. Then one of the shooters got back in the driver’s seat, and the truck jounced along the edge of sorghum fields populated with kangaroos. It wasn’t long before a dark creature crept across the road and into some trees. The men stopped the truck and shined their spotlight over the field. It was a fox.

Half a mile farther down the road, skirting the fields alongside a stand of prickly pear and acacia trees, Mark W. spotted something out to the right. “Just drive slowly, please, and we can look down the rows,” he said softly. They backed the truck up and steered toward the area, inching forward. Out of the shades of gray cast by the spotlight, a pair of neon-green orbs shone out — cat eyes. The bang from the rifle seemed to flatten out all the other sounds of the night, creating a void in space. The men went still for a moment. The shot had hit the cat, but not fatally. Damien looked through a thermal monocular. “It’s still flicking around out there,” he said. Mark W. got out of the truck and went stomping through the sorghum fields. When he found the cat, he shot it at close range and carried it by the tail back to the truck.

The cat was a tabby with fine black lines descending from its spine like the furrows of tree bark. It was a light gray; a healthy, muscled animal in its hunting prime. The force of the impact from the second shot had blown off the cat’s entire head, and there was little trace of it save the strands of tissue trailing from its body.

During the hours that followed, the men got in only instantly fatal head shots or else missed altogether. Mark W. cut a slit in a hind leg of each dead cat and hung it on a hook attached to his truck frame, in order to slice open their stomachs and see what they had been eating. Long after midnight, as the truck turned back toward the farmhouses, and the men shot their fifth or sixth cat, Mark W. opened one up to find that it had been carrying five kittens that were close to term. Their skin was translucent and velvety, and when he took them out of the cat, they made their first noises.

“Five little killers,” he said, and, so they wouldn’t suffer alone in the cold night, he used a knife to cut their heads off.

This article was researched with support from New York University’s Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award. Jessica Camille Aguirre is a writer from California. This is her first article for the New York Times published on 25 Apr 2019.


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Cat Drops Off Her Kitten in Family’s Yard – They Discover the Kitty Needs Their Help

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