Chocolate bunnies menace Down Under biosecurity
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1999:
WELLINGTON, CANBERRA––Announcing on
April 1 that he had distributed at eight sites 50 rabbits who were
genetically modified to resist rabbit calicivirus disease (RCD),
Auckland entrepreneur Graham Milne made four-day suckers
of New Zealand officials and media.
The intent of the releases, Milne said, was “to
obtain field data on the transfer and spread of RCD immunity in
the feral population.”
In other words, Milne might have insured recovery
of the animal RCD was to eliminate.
Milne had actually just distributed chocolate Easter
bunnies. But no one figured that out until April 5––even as he
shared chocolate bunnies with reporters, bearing labels
explaining that they were RCD-proof.
Admitted the New Zealand Press Association, “The
joke survived at least six separate interviews by four O t a g o
Daily Times journalists, as well as interviews by NZPA
reporters and other media representatives, and serious concern
by national scientists. Interviews with Ministry of Agriculture
and Forestry deputy director general Barry O’Neil, environmental
risk management authority chief executive Bas Walker,
and Otago Regional Council chief executive Graeme Martin
revealed that while they had some scepticism, they took the
Added the NZPA, “Milne’s company Landcare
Resources Ltd. planned to export rabbit meat and skins until
RCD was released illegally in the South Island by farmers two
years ago,” prompting official releases soon afterward.
“The company still contends,” NZPA went on, “that
if the spread of the virus could be brought under control or
eliminated, there are good prospects to build a valuable trade.”
Milne’s hoax succeeded in part because he struck two
sore nerves at once: anxiety about proliferating rabbits, and
indications that RCD is already failing as a control method,
only five years after it hit Australia by escaping prematurely
from a test site on Wardang Island, and just two years after it
reached New Zealand.
Exterminating rabbits and other feral wildlife is longestablished
policy in both New Zealand and Australia, whose
anti-feral project budgets dwarf the $29 million that President
Bill Clinton on February 2 asked Congress to spend to kill
introduced species in the U.S.––over and above the $28.8 million
fiscal 1999 routine allocation to USDA Wildlife Services,
formerly called Animal Damage Control.
Clinton’s proposal also created an interagency
Invasive Species Council, jointly chaired by Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt, Commerce Secretary William Daley, and
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
But the New Zealand cabinet has included a fulltime
Biosecurity Minister for years.
How rabbits took over
Down Under terror of introduced species dates at
least to 1860, when the New South Wales government declared
rabbits to be “noxious pests” just six years after they were
brought to Australia and New Zealand by hunters who had
already extirpated native burrowing marsupials from the most
accessible habitat and were seeking new quarry.
Sheep ranchers had already virtually exterminated all
native carnivores big enough to kill a rabbit, and the vanished
native marsupials who had been the native carnivores’ primary
prey left behind thousands of miles of already-dug tunnels and
warrens suitable for rabbit reproduction.
Soon ranchers fretted that rabbits might be out-eating
their sheep––and rabbits made easy scapegoats for hard times,
especially after World War II, when the introduction of synthetic
fibers and declining demand for mutton brought abrupt
contraction of the sheep industry worldwide.
Currently, rabbits are accused of costing Australian
farmers about $600 million a year in lost production and rabbit
Expanding their struggles against rabbits to germ
warfare, both Australia and New Zealand introduced the fleaborne
disease myxomiatosis in 1950, killing an estimated
99.9% of their rabbit populations with repeated releases before
the offspring of resistant survivors recaptured the habitat.
RCD was supposed to replace myxomiatosis as the
leading weapon against rabbits, but sheep farmers in both
Australia and New Zealand were so eager to deploy it that
instead of awaiting the official releases, they made their own
RCD-infected baits from the remains of dead rabbits found
where it had already hit. The result was widespread introduction
of a weaker form of the RCD virus, which in effect immunized
the rabbits who were not killed.
In New Zealand, Landcare Research and the Institute
of Pest Management discovered in late 1998 and early 1999
that up to 90% of the rabbits in some areas were already
immune to RCD, and about a third of all the rabbits on the
South Island had become immune. RCD initially
killed about 90% of the rabbits in afflicted
areas, but a year later the surviving rabbit
populations doubled. After two years, they
Similar results were reported from
Tasmania, Victoria, and New South Wales,
but Australian researchers were more inclined
to blame weather adverse to the spread of RCD
rather than any weakening of RCD itself.
The Victoria government in late
1998 allocated $10 million toward an effort to
reintroduce farmers to “traditional” rabbit
shooting, poisoning, and trapping.
The temporary depletion of rabbits
while RCD was working didn’t help native
wildlife. Hungry feral carnivores who formerly
fed on young rabbits turned to native
species, especially rare birds.
Raptors also suffered. Studies
released in October 1998 by the Australian
Raptor Society, Birds Australia, and the state
government of South Australia implicated
RCD in declines of brown falcons and wedgetailed
eagles, who had depended on abundant
rabbits to feed their young. Wedge-tailed
eagles, in particular, took to scavenging roadkill––and
many were killed in the effort.
The New Zealand Department of
Conservation followed up the introduction of
RCD to the Mackenzie Basin with a $500,000
effort to kill feral predators. The toll included
1,067 hedgehogs, 328 ferrets, 195 cats, and
69 stoats––but 13 of 25 captive-hatched black
stilt chicks still vanished within a month of
release, presumed lost to predators.
“Unless we learn from the RCD
saga,” New Zealand parliamentary environment
commissioner Morgan Williams warned,
“we could have problems with other potentially
risky new organisms being brought into the
Instead of noting that bio-xenophobia
tends to be both futile and self-perpetuating,
especially after introduced species have
established themselves in a transformed habitat,
Williams called for intensified measures to
keep new species out. It was a popular appeal,
but not practical, since virtually every form of
agriculture practiced Down Under centers on
the cultivation and husbandry of introduced
plants and animals.
Moreover, keeping new species out
should logically extend to products of bioengineering
as well as to imports. This would
oblige the New Zealand government to stifle
bio-technology––a field in which some New
Zealand institutions are world leaders.
Green Party of New Zealand coleader
Jeannette Fitzsimmons is nonethelesscampaigning
against bio-tech. She scored
recent media hits by exposing genetic engineering
experiments quietly undertaken by
New Zealand King Salmon Inc. to expedite
hatchery salmon growth, and by criticizing
plans by Agresearch, a government agency,
and PPL Therapeutics, a Scots biomedical
research firm, to insert human genes into dairy
cattle and sheep.
The goals would be to develop milk
more easily digestible by humans and more
useful as a transmission medium for pharmaceutical
The project involving sheep was
governmentally authorized on March 23.
Leaders of several minority parties joined
Fitzsimmons in pledging to make biotechnology
an election issue.
The introduced species research traditionally
getting the most attention Down
Under tends to involve people who claim to
have built a better mouse trap, or magpie trap,
or other devices intended to kill ferals fast.
Even as the failure of RCD became
apparent, Landcare Research and Lincoln
University proudly unveiled a new form of
stoat trap. Ermine-like British cousin to the
weasel, stoats were introduced to New
Zealand by 19th century rabbit hunters.
The inventors asserted that stoats are
“a major threat to young kiwi and many other
Stoats are kiwi predators––but the
often-echoed claim that stoats are chiefly
responsible for cutting the North Island kiwi
population from 70,000 to fewer than 30,000
since 1980 is dubious.
Kiwis are rabbit-sized flightless nocturnal
birds who evolved to fill the habitat
niche filled elsewhere by small burrowing
mammals. When mice, rats, and rabbits
arrived, kiwis gained three much more prolific
competitors for their niche, which they previously
had to themselves. (Bats had been the
only New Zealand mammals.)
The kiwi niche was meanwhile
declining. Since the Maori came to New
Zealand, 700 to 800 years ago, an estimated
85% of the lowland forests and wetlands that
kiwis once inhabited have been cleared and
drained, according to a 1997 New Zealand
environment ministry report. Of the 93 bird
species known to have been uniquely native to
New Zealand then, 43 are now extinct and 37
are endangered. Most were apparently already
in decline well before European settlement
started. But rapid urban development over the
past 20 years accelerated the process.
Stoats hit kiwi chicks hard. But they
hit kiwis’ introduced rival species as hard, or
harder, if only because there are more of the
Stoats don’t eradicate rabbits, as
19th century authorities imagined they would,
or mice or rats, because of a fundamental rule
of ecology: predators may limit the abundance
of prey, but prey availability also limits the
abundance of predators.
The reverse occurs only if predators
have enough prey to multiply up to a high
number, and then something else abruptly cuts
the prey population––like the introduction of
RCD, which caused rabbit numbers to plummet,
temporarily, forcing stoats to eat more of
whatever else they could catch.
Many of the most aggressive antiferal
campaigns in New Zealand are against
Australian species––and often the campaigns
seem more the product of national rivalry than
of genuine ecological concern.
The New Zealand Department of
Conservation, for instance, hopes to exterminate
a flock of about 150 rainbow lorikeets
who were allegedly released in Auckland by
one Rex Gilfillan. Gilfillan was initially
charged with a crime, but the case was reportedly
dropped on a technicality. As of midFebruary,
27 of the lorries had been caught.
Said New Zealand conservation minister
Nick Smith, “I don’t want Auckland to
become just another Aussie city, devoid of
New Zealand bird life. If people want lorikeets,
they can either have them in a cage or
travel to Australia.”
But the lorikeets were unlikely to
displace any native species. None of the
endangered New Zealand native parrots––or
other rare birds––favor the fruit-filled suburban
back yards that tend to attract lorries. If
they did, they should be thriving.
Farmers on the Banks Peninsula of
New Zealand have urged the extermination of
a flock of about 100 feral sulphur-crested
cockatoos since at least mid-1997. All may be
descended from a pair who apparently reached
New Zealand on their own, and promptly
occupied habitat left vacant by the decline of
New Zealand species.
Farmers on the island of Kawau have
routinely shot dama wallabies since the 1950s.
Only in January 1998 did Macquarie
University Marsupial Research Centre scientist
Andrea Taylor discover through genetic
research, with 97% certainty, that the “nuisance”
damas are probably the same animal as
the supposedly extinct tammar wallaby of
South Australia. Their ancestors were apparently
translocated in 1845 by Sir George Grey,
the former governor of South Australia, who
took specimens of his favorite native wildlife
with him when he departed to become governor
of New Zealand.
But brush possums are easily the
most hated Australian immigrants to New
Zealand. Three hundred brush possums were
introduced to the North Island in 1858 by fur
trappers. They soon spread to the South
Island. They are now scarce in Australia, due
to habitat loss. By 1990, however, the New
Zealand possum population was estimated at
70 million––and possums were accused of
wreaking ecological havoc, from allegedly
damaging up to 20% of the kauri trees on the
North Island to spreading bovine tuberculosis.
Within Wanganui National Park
alone, foliage loss caused by possums was
said to be jeopardizing kereru pigeons, tui,
bellbirds, kaka, tomtits, rifleman birds,
robins, moreporks, brown kiwis, longtailed
bats, and falcons––although most of the
alleged possum damage was reported after the
New Zealand Department of Conservation poisoned
possums in about two-thirds of the park
twice in five years.
Normally vegetarians, brush possums
are also accused of endangering rare
giant land snails, by eating them when the
plants they prefer become scarce. NZ-DoC
snail researcher Kath Walker reportedly figured
this out by keeping six possums caged
with giant snails for 10 years.
Escalated anti-possum campaigns
began soon after the 1988 global collapse of
markets for trapped fur cut the possum pelt
price to just $3.00 apiece.
At first, possum purging looked like
makework for trappers. But possum meat and
pelt export schemes largely failed, though limited
markets were developed in Hong Kong,
China, and Malaysia.
Officials next poisoned possums
with sodium fluoroacetate, better known as
Compound 1080. Initially they used
Compound 1080 as a paste, mixed with shredded
carrots or apples. When possums learned
to avoid the paste, a pellet form of the poison
was deployed. After at least 22 dogs and several
endangered birds ingested the poison, cinnamon
was added to keep other species away.
A Warfarin-like anti-coagulant
called brodifacoum, marketed as Talon or
Pestoff, eventually came into favor as a
Compound 1080 alternative, but contaminated
the remains of wild pigs who scavenged dead
possums. That caused meat processing plants
to refuse to butcher wild pig carcasses.
As the money available for possum
eradication rose to the present level of $45 million
per year, biotech researchers got
involved, reportedly pursuing more than 100
possum elimination projects at present, which
together cost about $15.5 million a year.
Among the leaders, Massey
University researchers Joanne Meers and
Darelle Thomson spent much of 1998 seeking
permission to test an immuno-contraception
method on possums, encountering considerable
public skepticism and political resistance
in the wake of the RCD failure.
Janine Duckworth of Landcare
Research is reportedly also close to perfecting
an immuno-contraception method.
Immuno-contraceptive possum control
research spinoffs reportedly may include
the discovery of contraceptive approaches
effective against kangaroos and red foxes.
Other researchers are reportedly
working on TB vaccines for possums, cattle,
and deer; on more effective poisons; and on
bio-engineered viruses and parasites which
would kill only possums.
More than 14 million possums have
already been killed since 1990, amounting to
90% of the population in the 15% of the New
Zealand land surface where eradication work
has been done, according to Doug Wright,
convenor of the national science strategy committee
on possum and bovine TB control.
“Historically,” Wright admitted in
February 1999, “the stark image of 70 million
possums devouring native forests was promoted
to help gain public support and political
commitment to spend more money on possum
control. But the real measure of progress
should be the reduction in TB-infected herds.
In the past four years,” Wright continued,
“the number of infected cattle herds has
decreased by 35%, and the number of infected
deer herds has decreased by 49%.”
Wright predicted that at the current
level of spending, possum control could help
extirpate bovine TB from New Zealand within
10 more years.
But Biosecurity Minister John
Luxton told media on April 13, 1999 that,
“This level of expenditure is not sustainable,
and current control methods are becoming less
Eradicating bovine TB may be the
real impetus for possum-purging, but protecting
endangered species remains the most politically
Among the birds purportedly benefitting
from programs to kill possums and
other feral species are native New Zealand parrots
including the kaka, the kea, the kakapo,
the kokako, the kakariki, and the black-andwhite
tui. All are subjects of costly recovery
programs. Similar campaigns are underway in
Australia on behalf of the glossy black cockatoo
and the Coxen’s fig parrot.
But the wars on ferals often incorporate
lethal paradox. In January 1998, for
instance, a private pest control contractor in
New Plymouth, New Zealand, shot two handreared
pukeko, mistaking them for “problem”
birds because they showed no fear of humans.
They had just escaped from the Brooklands
Zoo, next door.
The New Zealand government and
private sponsors in January 1999 claimed success
in eradicating Norway rats from Kapiti
Island, by air-dropping 16 metric tons of poisoned
bait over a three-year interval. The poisoning
was intended to benefit weka, kiki,
kaka, kokako, New Zealand robins, and
stitchbirds. Non-avian native species including
tuatara, rare lizards, frogs, and bats have
been proposed for reintroduction to the island.
But the $700,000 drive to kill an estimated
30,000 rats ironically began with removing all
the native weka, who otherwise might have
been poisoned with the rats.
Other scarce Down Under birds may
get such help if living populations are found.
The search is ongoing. Hoping to find exam-
ples of the Australian night parrot, for example,
last seen alive in 1912, A u s t r a l i a n
Geographic in 1991 reluctantly paid a $38,000
reward for the discovery of a recent roadkilled
specimen, and continues to seek a live pair.
But no such respect is accorded to
some of the night parrot’s more common
native kin, among them sulphur-crested cockatoos.
Also called corellas, sulphur-crested
cockatoos are often shot, poisoned, or gassed
by farmers in Victoria state, who accuse them
of stripping crops. Proposals to capture and
export cockatoos as pets have been repeatedly
defeated by opponents of any commerce in
wild-caught birds––including U.S.-based captive
breeders as well as animal rights
groups––though the abundant cockatoos could
steal the market from smugglers of scarcer
Latin American and African parrots.
Even rarity is no protection for
native Down Under wildlife if authorities
decide the animals are out of place. Protected
grey-headed flying fox fruit bats and rare birds
of various species were among the victims
documented by the activist group SAFE
Australia in 1996-1997, after the National
Parks and Wildlife Service authorized 21 fruit
growers to shoot up to five bats per night up to
a total of 40, to protect their orchards.
No matter, either, that a rare “nuisance”
species might have occupied the same
place for 150 million years or more. After
saltwater crocodiles attacked two Queensland
swimmers in six months, for example, the
Queensland government in March 1998
announced a $1 million scheme to eradicate
saltwater crocs along 120 miles of coast frequented
by tourists. The crocs are being
moved to farms where they will eventually be
killed for hides and meat.
Calling the action “stupid” and
“paranoid,” Wildlife Preservation Society of
Queensland director Jan Oliver pointed out
that neither croc attack victim was badly
injured, and that one victim, a 36-year-old
man, had violated basic safety rules by swimming
at night in a known croc habitat.
Koalas & kangaroos
Even koalas have been proposed for
massacre when they were recently judged to be
too many in the wrong place.
Historically, koalas favored the
eucalyptus forests of coastal southeastern
Australia. The growth of Australia’s leading
cities displaced them, however, as forests
were logged to make room for building. The
Australian Koala Foundation estimates that
about 80% of the original koala range has been
developed since 1788.
There were still millions of koalas as
of 1900, but as many as three million a year
were killed for their pelts until 1930, when
they were officially protected. By then, concern
had risen that koalas and other Australian
icon species might soon be extinct.
Hoping to preserve the icon species
in a relatively remote habitat, conservationists
in 1923 introduced 22 koalas to Kangaroo
Island, south of Adalaide, of whom 18 survived.
Introduced with them were platypuses,
brush turkeys, and wombats.
Only the koalas prospered. By 1996
there were an estimated 5,000 on Kangaroo
Island, compared with 45,000 to 80,000 on the
mainland, and they were blamed for destroying
the only habitat for the 175 remaining
glossy black cockatoos.
Adelaide University professor Hugh
Possingham recommended that 2,000 koalas
be shot, predicting they would otherwise
starve. Global outcry prevented the killing.
Instead, the government set about sterilizing
1,500 koalas over the next 18 months, at cost
of $500,000. Both surgical methods and contraceptive
implants were tried.
Because koalas were depleted at
popular national parks in western New South
Wales, some of the sterilized koalas were then
relocated––not to replenish the local populations,
but to please tourists.
The Australian Koala Foundation
objected to relocation of any koalas capable of
breeding, because the southern and NSW
koalas are purportedly different subspecies.
The southern koalas are slightly bigger and are
believed to be more aggressive.
As in the U.S., where coyotes and
other “nuisance” native species continue to be
persecuted as aggressively as any aliens, even
full native status does not completely protect
wildlife from wholesale killing.
Especially vulnerable are species
who conflict with ranching and development.
That includes kangaroos, the national
animals of Australia. The 1999 kangaroo
killing quota is 5,668,416, the highest
ever––twice as many as five years ago.
Officially, kangaroos are to be shot for sport,
meat, and leather because they might overpopulate
and starve. But only a handful of the
largest kangaroo species are even numerous.
Seventeen kangaroo species are threatened or
endangered. What is actually happening is
that declining world demand for Australian
sheep cut the national herd from 160 million to
123 million, 1988-1997, a 23% drop, while
production of kangaroo meat and leather grew
into a $445-million-a-year industry.
Now there is public discussion of
amending regulations to permit kangaroo
ranching, a development analagous to the
growth of bison ranching in the U.S. west.
Should kangaroo ranching boom,
Australia might next see escalated efforts to
exterminate feral sheep and cattle.
Down Under authorities have
already been trying to exterminate feral sheep
and cattle in many habitats––chiefly offshore
islands and mainland wildlife reserves.
Yet the feral livestock they are
killing may be as unique and rare, in many
instances, as most of the native wildlife with
whom they purportedly compete.
This was recognized by Australian
authorities in at least one instance, when in
April 1998 an attempt to eradicate about 80
feral cattle from the Blue Mountains west of
Sydney was halted pending genetic investigation
to determine whether the herd had
descended from the cattle brought by the First
Fleet in 1788. The First Fleet transported the
initial English and Irish settlers to Australia,
along with Cape cattle from South Africa.
Many of the cattle escaped soon after being
put out to pasture.
New Zealand officials were much
less accommodating in 1993, when they
wiped out the seaweed-eating cattle who had
inhabited Enderby Island since 1849, and had
adapted to harsher conditions than any other
bovines. The Rare Breeds Society was able to
recover only one cow, named Lady, plus
sperm from several recently killed bulls.
Biotech may have saved the Enderby
breed. The Agresearch Ruakura Research
Centre in Hamilton in May 1998 delivered a
live calf from Lady and the frozen sperm by
caesarian section, the first bovine animal to
be cloned from an adult cell, after 15 previous
failures of embryos. At approximately age 13,
Lady was believed to be near the end of her
fertility. Four more female calves cloned from
Elsie have reportedly since been born to surrogate
mothers. It is hoped that the saved sperm
can be used to produce some bulls.
The Rare Breeds Society was more
successful in recovering live specimens of
Enderby Island rabbits. Like the ancestors of
the cattle, the ancestors of the rabbits were
released by whalers and sealers as an intended
source of a more varied menu than was normally
available to 19th century sailors.
Adapting to the extreme climate, the rabbits
thrived until shot and poisoned en masse.
Whether they will long retain their adaptations
in captivity remains to be established.
After the Enderby Island exterminations,
the New Zealand Department of
Conservation set about killing off the pigs who
had resided on nearby Auckland Island since
1807. Their forebears were brought from the
Philippines and released as possible food for
victims of shipwreck. The Rare Breeds
Society was allowed eight days before the
massacre began in which to capture some of
the pigs, and did save 17, from among an
estimated population of 500.
The New Zealand Department of
Conservation has made sporadic efforts to cull
the Kaimanawa wild horses of the North Island
interior for more than 20 years, ostensibly to
protect rare plants. The horses are descended
from cavalry mounts who were released in
1877. Public outcry over a plan to round up
and slaughter all the Kaimanawa horses
brought them protected species status in 1981.
Within 15 years, however, the population had
grown from about 300 to more than 1,700,
and the NZ/DoC tried again, this time with a
plan to cut the herd by two-thirds.
After a two-year legal and political
battle, and the evident failure of an immunocontraception
experiment, the NZ/DoC in
mid-1997 shot 50 stallions; sold 440 horses to
private owners, some of whom allegedly
intended to resell them for slaughter; and sent
several hundred to private sanctuaries.
But the controversy is far from over.
In June 1998, members of the Kaimanawa
Wild Horse Preservation Society discovered
74 starving horses and five dead horses at a
farm that was supposedly holding them as part
of the immuno-contraception project. The
society bought 39 mares and 19 foals. The
NZ/DoC euthanized another 16 horses at the
scene. Some animal protection advocates suspected
that the NZ/DoC might be all too willing
to dispose of the horses piecemeal if they
can’t all be killed at once.
Suspicion that the NZ/DoC might
kill feral animals any way they can was whetted
in August 1998, after NZ/DoC Northland
conservator Gerry Rowan authorized staff to
shoot seven horses who were suspected of
damaging an electric fence meant to keep
brush possums out of the Mokaikai scenic
reserve on the north cape.
Members of the Ngatikuri tribe, a
local Maori group, were still upset that 26
other horses and two cows had been killed
nearby in 1996 and 1997. They allegedly
placed a curse on the NZ/DoC.
Within a month of the 1998 shootings,
one person believed to have done the
shooting was hospitalized with a serious illness,
and another was injured in a car crash.
“We have our own beliefs,”
Ngatikuri Trust Board chair Graham Neho told
Paul Chapman of the London Daily Telegraph.
“We’ve seen things act in mysterious ways. If
they start shooting these animals and leaving
them to lie above our ancestors, they can take
The Tasmanian National Park
Service allowed no intervention to preserve the
unique adaptations of the cats on Macquarie
Island, well inside the Arctic Circle, 1,000
miles southeast of Tasmania proper.
First reported by sealers who visited
Macquarie Island in 1820, and believed to
have been descended from cats brought by previous
sealing parties, the cats were in 1919
blamed by explorer Douglas Mawson for
allegedly causing the extinction of native parakeets
and land rails.
Whether or not the cats were responsible,
the birds were gone, the cats were
there, and they were now eating seabirds. By
the 1970s, with many seabird species in
decline due to overfishing and entanglements
in nets, blaming and killing cats became politically
more expedient than confronting the
fishing industry. Between 1978 and March
1998, the Tasmanian National Park Service
shot, trapped, or poisoned more than 2,300
Macquarie Island cats, or about 115 per year,
barely keeping pace with reproduction. Then
the Natural Heritage Trust gave the TNPS
$900,000 with which to hire six hunters for
four years to kill the estimated last 100 cats.
At last report, they thought they had
succeeded in less than one year––but such pronouncements
have proved wrong before.
Cats are commonly believed to have
been dropped off in Australia by European visitors
in the 17th or 18th century. Whenever
they came, they were already established
before the First Fleet arrived––and made themselves
conspicuously useful as the leading
predators of feral mice, rats, and rabbits.
No other nation now has as many
cats per capita as Australia, with a ratio of
one per human. But only two to three million
of the estimated 15 to 18 million Australian
cats live indoors. Feline predation is now
commonly blamed for destroying native birds
and small marsupials, who in truth are far
more impacted by livestock grazing, logging,
and other introduced habitat change.
Anti-cat sentiment, often strong
among birdwatchers, gained political force
during the past 30 years through the efforts of
entrepreneur John Wamsley, 60, who founded
his 50-acre Warrawong private sanctuary
near Adalaide in 1969, and expanded it into a
chain of for-profit ventures operating as Earth
Sanctuaries Ltd., under the motto “Australia’s
First Conservation Company.”
Earth Sanctuaries now manages private
sanctuaries at three other sites, with two
more in development. In 1996 Wamsley
announced plans to establish as many as 100
sanctuaries over the next 25 years, hoping to
acquire as much as 1% of the total Australian
Wamsley’s hypothesis, from the
beginning, was that “The main problem facing
Australia’s wildlife was feral animals––particularly
the fox and cat,” as he told members of
the CITES-L electronic bulletin board in 1996.
But Wamsley set out to eradicate all
non-native species. He was briefly jailed soon
after starting Warrawong for cutting down
non-native trees in a designated greenbelt.
Fencing out and killing cats and other nonnative
predators became a particular obsession
only after 1982, old news accounts indicate.
Reputedly drinking sherry for breakfast,
wearing a cat-fur hat, and selling bumper
stickers proclaiming “The only good cat is a
flat cat,” Wamsley in October 1996 called a
press conference to encourage eating cats––
where he reportedly lamented that “We can’t
kill cat owners.”
Wamsley’s prominent supporters
include Richard Evans, a Liberal Member of
Parliament who has repeatedly introduced proposals
to eradicate the entire Australian cat
population, and Nick Smith, the New Zealand
conservation minister, who in 1997 pushed a
proposal to ban cats from communities near
Wamsley has obtained seemingly
impressive results at wildlife propagation,
including the only births in captivity of platypuses
between 1943 and April 1999.
“There are now 12 species of rare
and endangered mammal which are more in
number today than 20 years ago because of my
work,” Wamsley claims. He predicts that
“About 100 species of Australian mammal will
[eventually] live only on land managed by
But it is doubtful that cat-killing is
much more than a symbolic part of Wamsley’s
success. Of note are that Wamsley has also
excluded sheep and cattle; does not permit
sport hunting, logging, pesticide use, or
ploughing on his properties; and is essentially
operating zoos at Warrawong and some of his
other locations, since his protected habitats
are essentially islands amid other forms of
development, and the rare and endangered
animals found there have often been “reintroduced”
by bringing them from elsewhere.
Paying visitors provide the cost of upkeep.
The animals live in an essentially wild state,
yet have little opportunity to expand their
numbers and range. Whether they can maintain
adequate genetic diversity to survive over
many years in such isolation is still uncertain.
The two major studies of Australian
cat depredation were separately conducted in
1992 by University of Adelaide researcher
David Paton, who vocally favors legislation to
keep cats indoors, and National Parks and
Wildlife officer Ric Nattrass, who considers
the alleged cat threat overblown.
Paton found that the average freeroaming
cat in Adelaide killed 25 native animals
per year. Figuring that the kill totals he
discovered were only half of the actual feline
impact, Paton extrapolated that across
Australia, cats collectively kill 75 million
native animals annually. Or so Associated
Press reported. Barry Pullen, minister of conservation
and parks in Victoria state, in a
brochure entitled Protect Your Cat, Protect
Your Wildlife, interpreted the Paton findings
as indicating that feral cats kill 100 million
native animals per year in Victoria state alone.
Responded Nattrass, “Based on data
collected by wildlife staff at the Moggill
Centre,” in Brisbane, “there is no evidence to
date that the domestic cat is a major threat to
the longterm survival of the city’s native vertebrate
fauna. From a purely conservation point
of view, neither the numbers nor the species
taken by cats are cause for alarm, when compared
with the losses to urbanization, industrialization,
motor traffic, and the creation of
the horse paddock.”
As a specific example, Nattrass continued,
“Very recently, the common dunnart
was recorded in large numbers at Doolandella,
where both feral and domestic cats operated in
big numbers at night. Following development,
the common dunnart cannot be found.”
So far, proposed cat-oriented legislation
in both Australia and New Zealand has
been amended into commonplace animal control
measures prior to winning passage. But
there remains a hue-and-cry in both nations for
cat curfews, in particular, intended to keep
cats in at night.
“There are two flaws to this argument,”
Nattrass pointed out. “The first is that
animal control officers are not nocturnal. The
second is that all the important wildlife species
[vulnerable to cats] are also not nocturnal.”
Nattrass urged reducing feline harm
to wildlife via neutering, not massacre.
Meanwhile, cats continue to help
control “mouse plagues” which have reportedly
afflicted Australian grain-growing districts
increasingly often over the past century, with
the interval between them dropping from circa
20 years to about four years. Although mice
were probably introduced to Australia with the
first European settlers, the greater incidence
of “mouse plagues” is much more recent,
coinciding with the introduction of conservation
tillage. This involves doing less ploughing
than was traditional, to reduce soil erosion,
and planting seeds at shallower depth––more
accessible to field mice. At least two new
mouse-fighting methods have recently been
developed, and are competing for governmental
One is a contraceptive virus, genetically
engineered by the government’s own
Vertebrate Biocontrol Cooperative Research
Centre in Canberra. The mouse version, the
inventors told media in April 1997, “could be
developed to target other pests such as rabbits,
feral pigs, and cats, as well as the brushtail
possum which is a pest in New Zealand.”
Responded U.S. wildlife contraceptive
expert Jay Kirkpatrick, of ZooMontana,
“What safeguards do we have that it won’t
mutate and infect other species?”
The other new mouse control technique
consists of applying zinc phosphide to
harvested fields, to make the post-harvest
stubble inedible by mice and thereby starve
them out. It is advanced by the Queensland
natural resources department.
Critics are concerned that the zinc
phosphide method could also starve out rare
birds and burrowing marsupials who likewise
eat field stubble––and it could poison the
micro-organisms who create fertile soil.
Either new method could prove
much more dangerous to native wildlife than
cats. Both are undergoing extended tests.
Cats, ironically, might never have
been so successful in Australia had more than
200 years of persecution not severely inhibited
the success of another much stigmatized
alleged feral species, the dingo.
While Australian marsupials have
evolved in semi-isolation for 45 million years,
the dingo “probably arrived by canoe with
aborigines from south or southeast Asia
between 10,000 and 14,000 years ago,” conservation
biologists Barbara Sleeper and
Michael Hutchins wrote in a 1988 article for
the Massachusetts SPCA magazine Animals.
“Dingoes are thought to have
evolved from the Indian wolf, and to be related
to the pariah dog of the Middle East,” as
well as to the wild dogs of Thailand, Sleeper
and Hutchins continued.
That makes dingoes relatively recent
arrivals by Australian standards, but as least
as well-established as most native North
American wildlife species, who only migrated
into present habitat after the retreat of the most
recent Ice Age, in about the same epoch.
“Bandicoots, rat kangaroos, and
hare wallabies were probably the dingo’s preferred
prey before Europeans arrived,”
explained Sleeper and Hutchins. With
European settlement came sheep, however,
who trampled and destroyed the habitat of the
smaller marsupials. Their major mammalian
predators, the dingo and the thylacene wolf,
turned to sheep as prey. Within short order the
stockmen exterminated thylacene wolves on
the Australian mainland, and wiped them out
in Tasmania too by 1930––at least so far as
can be proved. Dingoes became scarce. But
the introduction of rabbits in 1854 brought a
new food source.
“Then, in the 1950s,” wrote Sleeper
and Hutchins, “the Australian government
introduced the myxoma virus in an attempt to
control the exploding rabbit population.
Starving dingoes set upon sheep with a new
determination.” This brought dingo bounties.
The bounties reportedly encouraged
cattlemen, whose stock are relatively rarely
attacked, to more-or-less “farm” dingoes by
shooting them to collect the bounties, while
allowing them to breed.
Frustrated sheep farmers then built a
6,000-mile government-subsidized fence to
keep dingoes in the most arid part of the
Outback. Some sources say it worked.
Dingo researchers meanwhile discovered
that sheep and cattle together account
for less than 1% on average and never more
than 7% of the dingo diet. Dingoes readily
scavenge dead sheep and cattle, but rarely do
the the killing.
Further, dingo trappers turned out to
be killing two or three endangered native marsupials
for every dingo they caught.
Hutchins is now director of science
and conservation for the American Zoo
Association––and is not exactly known for
defending feral wildlife. Another of his scientific
articles, for instance, asserts that the
mountain goats of Olympic National Park in
western Washington state are an introduced
species. That article is often cited by National
Park Service biologists and plant conservationists
who have sought for more than a decade to
exterminate the goats.
But Sleeper and Hutchins concluded
of the dingo that it is “a tough survivor who
has earned a rightful place among Australia’s
There is now a movement for dingo
conservation, led by University of Queensland
veterinary lecturer Peter Woodall––whose
concern, based on skull studies, is that
hybridization with domestic dogs may erase
the “pure” dingo by “genetic stealth.”
Says Woodall, “We need to find the
areas where dingoes are pure, and protect
them,” by using DNA testing to distinguish
“pure” dingos from other wild dogs, and
killing those who flunk the purity test.
Roaming about a third of Australia,
wild pigs are also commonly identified as
feral, but also have an excellent claim to
native status. Officially, they were introduced
in the Sydney area by early settlers circa 1795,
but prehistoric rock carvings in northeastern
Australia suggest they may have been present
much earlier. Pigs may have crossed somehow
from Papua New Guinea, either on their
own or dropped off by Polynesian seafarers,
who distributed isolated pig populations
throughout the South Pacific.
It is also possible that separately
introduced stocks of pigs hybridized.
Whatever the case, about 15 million
wild pigs persist in Australia, despite many
extermination efforts, by methods ranging
from government-sponsored aerial gunnery
and poisoning to recreational hunting with
dogs and spears.
Though the damage is hard to quantify,
farmers contend that wild pigs do about
$100 million worth of damage per year to
crops and fences.
Since 1980, however, private pigshooters
and “chillers” who freeze freshly
killed pigs have enabled exporters to claim
about 25% of the $50-million-a-year world
trade in wild boar meat. Killing about 270,000
pigs per year bags about 500 hunters around
$5 million per year, among them.
This seems to have set up direct conflict
between rival factions of pig-killers:
those who want to kill them all, preferably
with labor-saving poisons, and those who
want to handle the pigs as a “renewable
New anti-cruelty legislation
advanced in New South Wales by the Royal
SPCA recently brought the conflict into the
open by banning hunting pigs with dogs in
about half of the state. The NSW Farmers
Association supported the ban, ostensibly
because escaped pig-dogs can also go feral.
However, less pig-dogging also clears the way
for more poisoning. The Australian Game
Meat Producers Association and the recently
organized Shooters Party eventually won
amendments to the legislation which allow pig
hunters to use dogs if they do not physically
contact pigs. Violators may be fined $10,000,
but the likelihood of such incidents being seen,
other than by pig-doggers themselves, would
A precedent for allowing wild pigs
to persist and to replenish themselves at some
level exists in the example of Australian wild
horse management. Called “brumbies,” the
wild horses have reputedly proliferated since
1801, when a soldier named James Brumby
released his mount into the Outback after
being transferred to Tasmania.
As in the U.S. west, wild horses in
Australia have variously been exploited as a
source of cheap trail mounts, shot by thrillseekers,
and rounded up for slaughter by
ranchers who believe they take water and forage
that might otherwise go to sheep and cattle.
But brumbies have also become a cultural
icon, too valuable to be completely exterminated.
Brumby roundups staged by dude ranch
operators, for instance, attract participants
from around the world, who typically pay
about $100 per day.
Meat export industries have also
developed from the slaughter of feral goats and
camels. Camel meat demand in the Middle
East is reportedly so strong that about 50
ranchers with property bordering the Gibson
and Simpson deserts of South Australia and
the Northern Territory have taken formerly
feral herds into captivity, and are now raising
them alongside cattle. While the cattle crop
grass, the camels feed on shrubs––which doubles
the number of animals able to graze in
some areas, and also doubles their impact on
Camels were first brought to
Australia as pack animals in 1860. About
12,000 in all were imported from Pakistan during
the next 47 years. The current Australian
population is estimated at 200,000.
Eurasian red deer and fallow deer,
along with rusa deer native to Java, were
introduced to Australia and New Zealand by
hunters and game farmers at many different
times and places––and often thrived. Still
hunted and ranched, they were rarely subjected
to attempted purges until the mid-1980s,
when researchers investigating the spread of
bovine tuberculosis among feral brush possums
in New Zealand decided that feral deer
and goats were the major means by which the
disease traveled between separate brush possum populations.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation and
the Northland Regional Council eventually identified 29 individual
deer herds in the northern half of the nation, which is
divided into two major islands by the Cook Strait. Although
the northern island officially had no bovine TB at the time, the
NZ/DoC and NRC in mid-1997 announced a plan to kill all the
deer via aerial shooting, trapping, and poisoning.
Amid rising controversy, New Zealand ministry of
agriculture veterinary officer John Adams speculated in
September 1997 that his agency might endorse poisoning deer
as well as possums with Compound 1080, but referred the matter
for further study.
The tax-funded New Zealand Foundation for
Research and Technology committed $2.5 million to experimentally
exposing deer to bovine TB in an attempt to develop a
vaccine for the illness. In September 1998, however, the project
was cancelled. According to New Zealand Biosecurity
Minister John Luxton, his staff determined that deer farmers
probably wouldn’t diligently use a vaccine, and decided that
simply killing known bovine TB hosts such as possums and ferrets
would be a “more appropriate” political policy.
Rusa deer meanwhile came under fire in 1994, after
severe brushfires swept the Royal National Park, south of
Sydney, Australia. Holding that the continuing presence of
rusa deer would be incompatible with the recovery of swamp
wallabies, who eat the same shubs, the National Parks and
Wildlife Service ordered that the remaining deer be shot.
Public protest stopped the shootings, but since 1997 the NPWS
has been live-trapping deer for transportation to venison farms.
Feral goats are apparently much scarcer and less controversial,
but no less difficult to eradicate––especially
Himalayan thar, a variety of wild alpine goat introduced by
hunters. Until May 1997, New Zealand officials congratulated
themselves that thar were confined to the high mountains of the
central South Island and to hunting ranches on the Northland
which keep them illegally.
Then a six-to-seven-year-old thar was found dead on
the Banks Peninsula. Hunting ranches operate in the area, but
none were authorized to keep thar.
Moose and puma?
Down Under introduced species may also include
moose in the Fiordland rainforest of south New Zealand, and
pumas––their major North American predator––in the far-away
Jarrahdale district of Western Australia.
Reports of both surfaced in May 1998, after helicopter
pilot Ken Tustin published a book and film about his 25-
year search for the moose––including photos taken with a timelapse
camera of an animal reportedly appearing to be a moose.
“The images may be far from perfect,” Tustin told
media, “but the shape, color, and gait of the animal are typically
moose, and in clear contrast to red deer, the only similar
animal in the area.”
Hunters in 1910 released 10 Canadian moose into
Wet Jacket Arm in Dusky Sound, Fiordland. The moose survived
for several generations, but were reportedly hunted out
Pumas are an alleged feral species whose presence
has never been confirmed Down Under, but Jarrahdale farmer
Ron Iannello in early June 1998 told South China Morning Post
correspondent Roger Maynard that he’d been seeing them occasionally
for “about 10 years,” and that “a lot of people,”
besides himself, “have seen them.”
Maynard speculated that the puma sightings “could
be linked to a frequently told tale that a pack of them escaped
from a traveling circus in the Perth area some years ago.”
The alleged pumas are said to prey upon sheep, cattle,
As in the U.S., the ongoing Down Under vendettas
against native wildlife tend to belie protestations of concern
about the alleged effects of invaders on native species. Fears of
the purported Alien Menace are inflated as cover for ecologically
destructive agricultural and developmental practice; to avoid
having to acknowledge that many “traditional” rural pursuits
are economically unsustainable; to perpetuate sport hunting; to
make work for a growing bureaucracy of government-employed
trappers and biologists; and, perhaps, as a subliminal expression
of public anxiety about the arrival of human “aliens.”
In the U.S., concern about “alien” animals and plants
seems strongest in California, Florida, Hawaii, New York,
Illinois, and Wisconsin––all states where growing Hispanic
and Asian communities challenge the cultural and political status
Down Under, the much older crusades against rabbits
and dingoes as supposed threats to sheep began expanding into
general pogroms against other introduced species with particular
vigor in the late 1960s––just as Australia moved to dismantle
the “White Australia” policy which had barred Asian immigration
since 1901. Since the “White Australia” policy formally
ended, in the early 1970s, roughly half of all immigrants
have come from Asia, raising the Asian share of the population
from near invisibility to almost 5%.
“Ecologism is a phenomenon of the despised
‘Northern White Empire,’” British social historian Anna
Bramwell observed in her 1989 volume Ecology In The 20th
Century, refuting some recent “green” rhetoric.
Tracing the intellectual origins of the environmental
movement, Bramwell argued that the central themes of “green”
politics fuse romanticism about bygone pastoral life with the
anxieties of a privileged elite about the rising influence of
underclasses, ethnic minorities, and immigrants.
Bramwell pointed out in passing the influence of one
Jorian Jenks, who in the 1940s and 1950s helped articulate the
views of nature now predominating among environmental policymakers,
as editor of the journals Rural Economy and Mother
Earth, and as secretary to the Soil Association.
Earlier, Jenks was agricultural expert for the British
Union of Fascists.
Bramwell noted “a Boy Scout enthusiasm about the
military attitude” that Jenks “adopted toward some problems.”
For instance, Jenks wrote circa 1935 that the hypothetical
fascist government he advocated would take “Effective
steps…to cope with the host of rabbits, pigeons, rooks and
other vermin who now levy a heavy toll on our fields. A corps
of expert vermin-destroyers equipped with up-to-date apparatus
will clear each district systematically.”
Such activity had centuries of precedent. The U.S.
government, for instance, had already purged wolves from the
Lower 48 states, and had embarked upon a similar persecution
of coyotes, beginning in 1930.
What was new was the now commonplace synthesis
of traditional predator and “vermin”-killing with the intellectual
pretense that it was restoring a once pristine Garden of Eden,
instead of just expediting a presumed Biblical injunction to subdue
and dominate the earth.