Poisoning Wildlife

Australia’s Shame – Poisoning Wildlife

Here in Australia our record is pretty good when it comes to the commercial production of fur. We hardly produce any at all. Nevertheless, the treatment metered out to many fur bearing animals in this country is so brutal it might even make J. Lo squirm.

Wallabies, possums and other native animals

Photo courtesy of Narelle Power / DDWFauna.com.au

Photo courtesy of Narelle Power / DDWFauna.com.au

While we condemn cats, foxes and dogs for the destruction of native wildlife, we allow humans to slaughter those same treasured species whenever they become an inconvenience.

The most obvious example is the timber industry. Countless numbers of native animals are deliberately poisoned each year, mainly in Tasmania, with 1080.

When woodchip plantations are planted out carrots laced with 1080 are spread on a massive scale to ‘control’ native browsing animals such as wallabies and possums. Other native ‘non-target’ species such as quolls and pademelons are incidentally poisoned.

In late 2004 the Tasmanian government announced that the poisoning of native animals with 1080 on Forestry Tasmania land would be stopped. Unfortunately, this is relevant to only 23% of the use of 1080 in the state. The other 77% is used on private land, by farmers and logging companies such as Gunns.

Foxes

Fox

In 1871 foxes were introduced into southern Victoria for recreational hunting. Colonisation was rapid and closely linked to the spread of rabbits, the foxes’ major source of food. Today foxes are common throughout mainland Australia. They were deliberately introduced into Tasmania in 2001, it is suspected by hunters.

Foxes are considered vermin in this country and any that are found must, by law, be destroyed. In most states landholders have a legal obligation to kill any foxes on their land. Government agencies recommend the ‘control’ of foxes by a variety of methods: poisoning with 1080, leg-hold traps, shooting and fumigation.

1080 (sodium monofluoro-acetate) is a controversial poison. It is highly toxic, odourless, tasteless and soluble in water. It has been considered for use in chemical warfare. The dangerous dose for a human is 0.5 to 2.0 mg/Kg. 1080 is banned in some countries and in USA its use is strictly controlled. In Australia, by contrast, we toss 1080 out of planes on a regular basis to kill foxes, dingoes, wild dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, wallabies and possums.

It is the recommended poison for just about every ‘pest’ species in the country. 1080 poisoning is one of the most cruel and prolonged methods you can use to kill an animal. It is a slow death lasting for hours, sometimes it can even take days. In foxes, dingoes and dogs there are no obvious signs for the first few hours. Then, for one or two hours the poisoned animal typically exhibits hyperactivity, vomiting, manic running and yelping. Following this it collapses and convulses for a few more hours until finally it dies.

There is no known antidote for 1080 poisoning (as anyone whose unfortunate dog has stumbled upon a 1080 bait can tell you).

Dingoes and wild dogs

Dingo

Dingoes were introduced into northern Australia by Asian seafarers 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. The dingo was a semi-domesticated animal that either escaped or was deliberately released. It has since colonised much of mainland Australia. With the arrival of white settlers, dingoes began cross-breeding with domestic dogs. These cross-breeds are now known as wild dogs.

They are usually medium size dogs around 15 to 20 Kg. The most common coat colour is yellow although black and tan, black, brindle and white also occur.Aerial baiting with 1080 and leg-hold traps are the major strategies used to ‘control’ dingoes and wild dogs. In the past steel jaw traps were widely used. Today these have been replaced with padded leg-hold traps which are, to a degree, more humane.

The following paragraphs are taken from a NSW government fact sheet:

“Trapping of wild dogs is often used where poison baiting is less effective.

Trapping is useful for targeting individual problem animals or as a follow-up after 1080 baiting programs, but is regarded as an inefficient method for general population control. Padded leg-hold traps are used to reduce the incidence and severity of foot injuries sustained by dogs. Traps are inspected daily and caught dogs are shot whilst still held by the trap. If the traps cannot be serviced daily, the trap-jaws are bound with strychnine-laced cloths to hasten death and prevent prolonged suffering. 

Impact on target animals

  • Leg-hold traps cause pain and distress in two ways; pressure of the trap jaws on the captured limb and restraint of the animal. Injuries will inevitably occur to some animals, especially when they struggle to escape the trap. These range from swelling of the foot and lacerations to dislocations and fractures. Wild dogs may also inflict injuries to their feet and legs by chewing on the captured limb, and to their teeth, lips and gums by gnawing at the trap jaws.

Impact on non-target animals

  • Traps are not target specific, so a wide range of non-target species may be caught. These can include birds (eg. ravens, magpies, pied currawongs), kangaroos, wallabies, rabbits, hares, echidnas, goannas, wombats, possums, bandicoots, quolls and sheep. If there is a high risk of trapping non-target animals, traps should not be set.
  • Different groups of non-target animals suffer different levels of injury and distress. For example:
  1. Wallabies often experience serious injuries eg. dislocations, due to the morphology of their limbs and because they become very agitated when restrained.
  2. Goannas eg. Lace monitors also suffer from dislocations and can die from hyperthermia.
  3. Birds, rabbits and hares can be preyed upon by foxes, cats and wild dogs while caught in traps.

DOG001 Trapping of wild dogs using padded-jaw traps. Prepared by Trudy Sharp & Glen Saunders, NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Rabbits

Rabbits

The rabbit originated in Spain and southern France. Domesticated rabbits arrived in Australia with the first fleet. In 1859 Thomas Austin, a member of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society, released 24 rabbits he had brought from England onto his property near Geelong for sport hunting on Christmas Day. Rabbits are now one of the most widely distributed mammals in Australia.

The history of rabbits in Australia is a grisly one. They must be the most maligned species in this country and, as a consequence, we have felt justified in attacking them with a whole arsenal of weapons: guns, leg-hold traps, cricket bats, poison, agents of biological and chemical warfare, we even blow them up. Cloropicrin (Tear Gas) was used in the First World War as a chemical warfare agent. It is widely accepted in the scientific community that this substance is unacceptably cruel. Nevertheless, Cloropicrin is commonly used to fumigate rabbit warrens.

It is a strong sensory irritant which causes watering of the eyes and nasal passages, intense irritation in the respiratory tract and, finally, respiratory failure and death. Rabbits exposed to sublethal doses take weeks to die.

The following excerpts are taken from a NSW Government Fact Sheet:

Steps in fumigation

  1. Identify all burrows, warrens and surface harbour.
  2. Remove surface harbour. Leave no home for the rabbit. Above ground surface harbour helps in the survival of the rabbit on your land.
  3. Put the rabbit in the burrow. Fumigation will only be effective on those rabbits that are in the burrow when it is fumigated. Use dogs to roam the area to be fumigated, make lots of loud noise (stones in tins, sheep rattles et.) to force the rabbits into the burrows.
  4. Dig burrows back. Find the shallow openings to the burrows, (the ones that usually cave in when you stand on them) and then dig the openings back to solid ground. This helps make a proper seal during fumigation with less chance of the rabbits escaping.

Power fumigator 
The most effective and efficient way to fumigate rabbits is to use a power fumigator. There are two types of power fumigators that may be available from NRE or Landcare/Rabbit Action Groups. You must take extreme care when handling and using Cloropicrin because it is very dangerous. The vapour is intensely irritating. Skin and eye contact should be prevented. Undiluted Cloropicrin is highly toxic by inhalation, ingestion or direct contact with the skin or eyes. Inhalation exposure to very high levels, even briefly, can lead to pulmonary oedema (fluid accumulation and swelling in the lungs), unconsciousness and even death. NSW Government Workcover Fact Sheet Another recommended method of rabbit control is the destruction of warrens. In rocky areas or thick scrub this is done with explosives, usually ammonium nitrate mixed with fuel oil. A government fact sheet describes the effects on rabbits. Impact on target animals

  • Depending on the distance from each blast, rabbits in the warren may be killed or injured by the following:
  1. the disruptive effects of the blast on body tissues;
  2. burns from the explosive gases produced (can be as high as 3000 degrees C);
  3. injuries caused by fragments of solid material e.g. rock, wood fragments propelled by the blast;
  4. injuries and haemorrhages (especially to the lungs) caused by the air blast; AND
  5. crushing and suffocation from the collapse of the warren.

RAB007 rabbit warren destruction using explosives. Prepared by Trudy Sharp & Glen Saunders, NSW Department of Primary Industries.

Feral cats

Feral Cats

Cats have a history of association with humans dating back thousands of years. They accompanied seafarers since the earliest times for vermin control and companionship. The first recorded instance of cats being brought to Australia was by English settlers in the 18th century. They were deliberately released into the wild during the 19th century to control rabbits and mice and feral cats are now found in almost all habitats. Generally speaking, feral cats are domestic cats which survive and reproduce without close association with humans.

However, the term ‘feral’ is very broad and may be used both for strays living in close proximity to human habitation or cats which have survived in the wild for generations. Feral cats are currently a hot topic and we have all listened to vitriolic speeches condemning them as major killers of our wildlife. Interestingly, a study conducted in the late 80s found that rabbit numbers increased significantly in areas where feral cats and foxes were systematically removed.

In the past cats were hunted for their fur, which was mostly exported. The commercial trade ceased in the late eighties, it is thought due mainly to the disapproval of the public. Nevertheless, the killing of feral cats has continued – we simply don’t use their pelts. ‘Control’ methods include shooting, leg-hold trapping, baiting and fumigation of rabbit warrens where cats often shelter.

Alternatives

There are humane alternatives to the brutal war we currently wage against animals that we see as pests. Maremma dogs are widely used in Europe and by some farmers in Australia to guard flocks of sheep. Electric fencing is an extremely effective barrier. Studies by the Victorian Institute of Animal Science (VIAS) found that even the common wombat, bulldozer of the bush, could be deterred by appropriately placed electric wires along fence lines. Damage to saplings in tree plantations can be significantly reduced by the application of browsing repellents.

Fertility control is a very successful but poorly researched tactic to reduce populations. In the mid nineties VIAS conducted a fertility control study on foxes. Baits containing Cabergoline, a drug known to have an abortifacient effect in cats and dogs, were buried near fox dens. Bait uptake was 88% and birth rates were found to be significantly lower.

There are a number of reasons why humane alternatives have not replaced shooting, trapping, poisoning and fumigation. ‘Recreational shooting’ is called recreational for a reason – some people enjoy killing animals. People also have a tendency to demonize anything which interferes with their activities. Some farmers say they prefer using leg-hold traps so they can see and personally shoot the animal which has caused them grief.

Economics, of course, is a major barrier. It is much cheaper to throw around toxic poison baits than to install electric fencing. Scientific research is also an expensive business. Unless it becomes apparent that the public are disturbed by current methods money will not be directed into researching alternatives. But this doesn’t mean we are powerless. Consider the success of the recent PETA campaign against the cruel practice of mulesing sheep.