Drones Set to Target Christmas Island’s Feral Cats

By Jeremy Hsu | February 28, 2017 10:56 pm
Australian wildlife officials tested small drones as a possible way to drop poisoned cat bait on Christmas Island. Credit: Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia

Australian wildlife officials tested small drones as a possible way to drop poisoned cat bait on Christmas Island. Credit: Department of Parks and Wildlife, Western Australia

In the land down under, feral cats slaughter an estimated 75 million native animals each day. That threat to biodiversity prompted the Australian government to declare it would kill 2 million feral cats over five years starting in 2015. As part of that campaign, officials plan to enlist a drone air force capable of dropping poisoned cat bait on the Australian territory of Christmas Island.

During flight tests last year, a Sky Hero drone performed airborne drops of cat bait that resembles breakfast sausage links made from kangaroo meat. That proof-of-concept test showed how drones could deliver cat bait to target areas at a cost three times cheaper than hiring manned light aircraft. Starting as soon as next year, wildlife officials could use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to drop toxic bait as part of the final phase of a plan to wipe out all feral cats on Christmas Island—a distant Australian territory located 2,650 kilometers northwest of the Western Australian capital of Perth.

“We are looking to incorporate UAVs into the 2018 control program,” says Mike Johnston, senior project officer for the Department of Parks and Wildlife – Western Australia.

This may sound harsh to cat lovers. But feral cats have proven one of the deadlier menaces for wildlife worldwide by contributing to at least 14 percent of vertebrate extinctions recorded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They first gained a foothold on Christmas Island during the first British settlement of the island in 1888, and have since grown into a serious threat for native island species that never evolved to deal with such predators.

Christmas Island’s feral cats frequently dine on native species such as the emerald dove, the Christmas Island hawk-owl, the Christmas Island thrush, Lister’s gecko and the pink blind snake. That is why wildlife officials have targeted the feral cats—along with black rats—for elimination through a three-step program. They have already completed the first two program stages by banning importation of new cats, using a veterinary program to desex and implant microchips in all pet cats, and removing all stray or feral cats within human residential, commercial and light industrial areas.

The Sky Hero drone was tested as part of preparation for Stage 3 of the Christmas Island plan. Equipped with eight motors, the drone carried non-toxic bait loads of 30 sausages during each test flight lasting between 8 and 14 minutes. Despite the relatively short flight endurance, the drone was able to carry out three bait drops at each of five test locations on Christmas Island.

Human ground crews moved in afterward to check that enough baits had fallen through the rainforest canopy to become accessible for feral cats (and to make sure the local land crabs had not carried off too many baits). Overall, the test drops were deemed a success with about 88 percent of 448 baits falling in areas where feral cats could theoretically reach them. More details can be found in an article published online in the 29 August 2016 issue of the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems.

Drones would just be the latest weapon deployed in Australia’s war on feral cats. Cage-trapping and poison baits represent some of the more typical methods. One ecologist developed a robotic trap that sprays feral cats with poison when it detects them, so that the cats later end up ingesting the poison due to their natural grooming habits.

Despite some outcry from animal welfare activists, Australia’s government seems adamant that it must continue to cull the feral cat population in order to save local animals. It pointed out that trapping, neutering and releasing millions of feral cats across seven million square kilometers of the Australian continent would be impractical and would not offer immediate relief for local wildlife.

“Returning neutered feral cats to the environment to keep killing and driving extinctions would be inhumane and unjustifiable when the alternative is for them to be humanely euthanized,” according to an Australian government FAQ. “Trap, neuter and release would be highly stressful for millions of feral cats, transported as wild animals in cages in remote and hot conditions across thousands of kilometers to be neutered and then returned to the wild.”

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  • OWilson

    Poisoning cats, starfish on the reefs, Canada Geese, and who knows what else? All part of government animal genocide progroms to “save” wildlife!

    Let’s hope they know what they are doing, the commercial poisons they are using littering the landscape with are target specific, do not get into the food chain, and do not affect other more “desirable” and “cute” denizens.

    • Maia

      There are no such poisons. There effects are not controllable when dropped from the air! They would be polluting and killing/ harming more than feral cats, for sure.

  • Houston Mom

    This Australian government site has more information about the bait & toxicant used in this article https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/invasive-species/feral-animals-australia/feral-cats

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Christmas Island is Australia’s dumping ground for all Malaysia-area refugees seeking a better life within Australian taxpayers’ wallets. As para-aminopropiophenone targets hemoglobin, cull two biome-destroying invasive species.

    About those meat baits…who hears kangaroos when they cry?

    • Mike C

      Can we have that poison bait dropped in our cities over here in the U.S. ?
      Starting with Chicago

      • Martha Bernal

        Cats are one of God most beautiful creatures on this world. Cats are able to cure loneliness, able bring humans great happiness just to share life with them just to contemplate their beauty and grace.
        Australian Government People should stop your cruelty against CATS.
        PEOPLE KILL MILLIONS ANIMALS TO EAT THEM EVERYDAY….ALSO FOR FUN, ABUSE, AND CRUELTY, LIKE IN THIS CASE. NOT EXCUSE OR JUSTIFICATION. JUST MURDEROUS INSTINCT.

        • OWilson

          I happen to think babies are “cute” and “loving” too, but the ones who are fighting to keep law breakers (illegal immigrants) in comfort seem to have no problem killing them off by the millions.

          Over 50 million, since Roe vs Wade!

          Our definition of “desirable” and “undesirable” obviously varies!

  • Erik Bowen

    They would do better to use birth control chemicals. Killing animals just makes room for the remaining animals to reproduce faster. You can see this with all virile species… (Including mosquitoes…)

  • Michal A. Kessler

    The VILE HUMAN RACE causes FAR MORE ecological destruction and extinctions of other species than any other life form on planet Earth! Who thinks doing mass poisons on humans is a good idea to control this problem???

    • Alice Anderson

      Feral cats are created by humans. If there had never been humans, there would be no house cats, feral or tame. The house cat is a human creation of a thousand years of selective breeding from the African wild cat. It is bred to kill far more than it needs to eat, for the purpose of killing mice in early farmers’ graneries.. It reproduces faster than its wild ancestor–typically 3 litters per year instead of just one. And domestic cats have been transported all over the world by people. They could not have traveled from North Africa to Christmas Island, or to mainland Australia, by themselves. Part of what makes us humans “vile” is our propensity to subsidize and transport outdoor domestic cats.

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  • Donna De

    This is inhumane and disgusting. What the heck is wrong with you people wanting to send drones to kill a bunch of cats. All Animals depend on the human species. So what do we do but build and we build and we destroy because we’re stupid. These poor animals suffer because of us and our stupidity. I hope this whole plan backfires!!!! These poor cats. It’s not their fault. It’s the people in Australia and their stupidity, they are not smart enough to know you need to fix them and trap them. Leave them the hell alone. I hope whoever sets those drones off pays big time! And they are worried about cats too destroying wildlife, what about all the assholes that poach and hunt and kill animals . Why don’t we punish them !Poor kitties!

  • Lauray

    The Australian government’s excuse that transporting cats “thousands of kilometers” to neuter them would be too cruel is so bogus. It’s 100% possible to set up a temporary remote spay/neuter clinic on the island. I’m all for protecting native wildlife but this is the government taking the easy way out at the expense of innocent animals (that were brought to the island by humans in the first place).

  • Donna Seibold

    That so sad I don’t believe in this at all if it was not the people that had them and didn’t get there cat fixed it’s not the cats falt. Blamed the people not the cat there is other ways to do things you people are cruel

  • Martha Bernal

    Cats are one of the most beautiful creatures of God on this world…beautiful wild life. Cats are able to cure loneliness, cure stress in humans, able to bring great happiness just to contemplate their beauty, just to share life with them. You Australian Government People should stop your cruelty and learn the real meaning of euthanasia and not confused with murder. Human race also kill millions of animals around the world to eat them, and some other humans kill animals just for pleasure and abuse.
    You wil pay for your actions.

  • MadameMidlifeCrisis

    This is disgusting & wholeheartedly cruel! Australia should know better but cat haters always seem to lead the charge. They ignore the data that shows that it is HUMAN interference that kills off native species. I hope all of Oceania suffers w/ an invasion of rats & mice (that carry bubonic plague & other awful diseases that cull humans!) x1 year for every cat killed! I can guarantee you that some pets, including dogs & cats, as well as some of the native species they claim to be protecting including birds with this murder plot will suffer a cruel death by poisoning. To read of the various methods (esp. traps spraying poison; WT absolute F?) that the Australian govt had considered shows they are cruel, soulless sacks o’ crap! I had read a book about a vet who lived of Kirimati/Kiribati/Christmas Island & he says the majority of the people living there are careless about their pets & often wait until the animals are far beyond help before taking them to the vet. Granted this was 20 yrs ago but I suspect the people haven’t changed much & even with free spay & neutering clinics for pets, I suspect that they don’t bother & the explosion of pets gone wild has made for messy tourism. *eyeroll* I am SO disgusted by this & hope that Karma for every cat & animal who suffers from this poison brigade eats away at the tourism even more! SHAME on Australia; they’re no better than the whale hunting Japanese who say they kill the whales for “research!”

  • Beniamina Patruno

    Horrific actions against these poor feral cats.Shame on ausie government to allow this murder of Gods great creature.Where is the voice of the World wildlife organization & people against cruelty to wild life and creatures. We hope that KARMA will rise to those involved in this horrific carnage.YOU WILL REAP WHAT YOU SOW!!!!!!! GOD WATCH OVER & BLESS ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL!!!!!!!!To all animal lovers let’s all stand together for the love and protection of these unfortunate cats!!!!LET YOUR VOICES BE HEARD!!!!! MARCH TOGETHER & PROTEST!!!!!!! This support from many Canadians who feel your pain!!!!!

  • Beniamina Patruno

    Disgusting actions.Stop this carnage.Join us in 2017 and learn the WORD HUMANE! Pamela Anderson Please use your platform of KINDNESS in support of these beautiful cats. Ellen Degeneres please use your platform of love for all animals to stop this slaughter.Your lovely wife Portia is austrillian and may have a connection to some politian who has a voice that can be heard in parliment.Thanking you all in advance for giving this important issue your usual kind & promo attention……

    • Slioch

      If you are concerned about animals being slaughtered, why do you apparently have no concern about the native animals of Christmas Island that the feral cats there “slaughter” in order to survive? How many native animals do you think need to be “slaughtered” every year to keep one feral cat alive?
      By killing feral cats, very many more animals, that have not evolved to withstand such predation, are saved from being killed.
      Anyone concerned about suffering and extinction of animals should be fully in support of killing these feral cats, because the overall level of killing is thereby hugely reduced.

  • Western Scrub Jay

    Clever use of the drones. Feral cats are a major cause of species extinctions on islands. The comments by feral cat lovers below are all from non-ecologists non-biologists, whose source of information seems to be their own cat and the cat food company. Good luck with the baits though, as they too are complicated, in terms of actually getting the feral cats to take the baits. There is a feral cat grooming trap under development that may get around the need to drop baits, or work in conjunction. You might want to check into that. Google feral cat grooming trap, Australia.

  • Aisling O’ Donoghue

    ““Trap, neuter and release would be highly stressful for millions of feral cats, transported as wild animals in cages in remote and hot conditions across thousands of kilometers.” But a grisly death through poisoning is okay?

  • Linda Yoest

    POISON is humane????? And how do you prevent that poison from going Up the food chain, when other analysts feed on the dead carcasses????? And who cleans up the masses of dead animals rotting in the heat, drawing flies and causing other sickness and disease?????

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About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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