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Invasive Species: Villains or Victims

July 14, 2016

Australia has become host to thousands of non-native species since the arrival of the Europeans in 1788.[1] These species have become widely known as ‘invasive species’, and are considered to present threats to valued Australian species and agriculture.[2]

Australians have a distinctive image of invasive species and this report attempts to uncover why this image exists, and if there is a grounds for it. By drawing on the works and perspectives of experts in the field, environmental justice literatures as well as theoretical insights regarding ethics and theories of charisma; I question whether the current management of invasive species is justifiable, and attempt to uncover the real threat towards native animals.


On July 16 2015, threatened species commissioner Greg Andrews released a statement confirming his plan to eradicate 2 million feral cats over the next 5 years. “We just can’t tolerate the damage that they’re doing anymore to our wildlife… over 120 Australian animals are at risk of extinction from feral cats. So the scientific evidence is crystal clear that they’re the biggest threat.”[3]


Andrew’s statement has received varying responses from key stakeholders in the issue – Kristina Vesk from the Cat Protection society describes it as a “big brush that’s unhelpful”[4] whilst Alexandra Ross, an honours student majoring in biology at UNSW revels the plan is “pretty cool”[5].


Alexandra, of course, is not alone in her response to Andrew’s statement. A large portion of Australians view invasive species as dangerous and ‘evil’[6].

One would only have to do a quick Google search to see why: even without the staggering statistics, invasive species are painted as villains in the animal kingdom; unwelcome guests who only cause trouble wherever they go.



Figure 1: Graham, Patterns In Nature: Some Thoughts On Invasive Species.


An Australian government website[7] dedicated to the species features galleries dedicated to exhibiting feral animals in their most unattractive state – eyes glowing red, jaws clamped around the bodies of lifeless native creatures.

Brochures released at a festival in Newtown state: Indian mynas “eat pet food and garbage – creating a mess in public areas.”[8]




Figure 2
Indian Mynas Brochure

Figure 3
Invasive animals CRC website banners


Even fictional works play a part in the personification of native and non-native animals – in ‘Bunnies, Bilbies, and the Ethic of Ecological Remembrance’[9], Wright draws our attention to fictional works such as The Easter Bilby[10], in which the rabbit is “vilified for its greedy and careless nature”[11], and “offers to make itself disappear from the “Easter job.”’[12] It would appear that where invasive species are present in the media’s eye they are portrayed as uncharismatic and selfish.


The native vs non-native dualism is equally apparent in scenarios where they do not feature, such as animal exhibitions: The Australian museum features a variety of animals, from the ‘big 5’ African giants to the extinct dinosaurs – and then there’s a section dedicated to the Australian natives – kookaburras, kangaroos and bandicoots. Non-native’s however, do not have a place in exhibitions like these. It’s the same in zoos – whilst countless native birds flock in the bird exhibition, the Indian minor birds – an introduced species – hop around the outsides, perhaps counting themselves lucky that they are deemed ‘invasive’ or rather ‘not special enough’ to be on the other side of the bars.


In order to find a perspective on invasive species that has not been altered by scientific fact, I emailed my nine year old cousin who resides in Moss Vale, asking him what his opinion towards non-native Australian animals was. His response: “They are pests!!”

Although there are clearly a lot of factors that contribute to the psychological view of invasive species amongst the public, those who count themselves amongst those who look at invasive species from a purely scientific view would argue that the statistics show that there is overwhelming evidence that points to the fact that invasive species are responsible for the deaths of many native species, and are driving them to extinction; hence making their vilification in the media justified.  


Biology student Aly Ross points to evidence that she uncovered during her recent field work where they released 100 male tales outside the predator proof fence. Apparently after 2 months, 98 of them had died.[13]


An Australian government website[14] outlines the impacts that the species pose as environmental, economic and social; listing landscaping damage, damage to infrastructure, competition with cattle as main points under these subheadings.[15]


Some of the impacts generate questions, especially those listed under the social category – “reduction of people’s enjoyment of natural areas”, “interference with native animals of hunting of native animals” and “community costs associated with traffic accidents”[16].


In ‘The Great Feral Cat Con Job: The Ungentle Art of Scapegoating and Scapemongering’[17], Seymour argues that the research that the Australian Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999[18] draws from is outdated; and that “little original research has appeared since the 1980s that sheds any new light on the impacts of naturalised species.”[19] He goes further to reveal that the reason that non-native species, such as the rabbit are thriving in Australia is because humans have altered the landscape to suit their needs – “we have modified arid Australia by providing huge quantities of surface water, for the purpose of watering “livestock””[20].




Whilst it is debatable as to whether or not introduced species cause devastating effects to the Australian ecosystem, it is apparent that the Australian’s current view is that they do.

This view of introduced species as uncharismatic “killing machines”[21] has no doubt contributed to our current management of them – culling. In this practise feral mammals lives are seen as indispensable, as a range of techniques – shooting, trapping, and poisoning – are used to kill these species, all in the name of protecting Australia’s ecosystem. 




Figure 4: Major’s Wanted Poster which generated ‘positive feedback’

Some would even say that the issue gives Australia’s hunters an excuse to exercise their guns - when Major posted a ‘WANTED! Common ‘Indian’ Mynas’ poster[22], which sought the public’s help in collecting tissue samples, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive[23], with many Australians rejoicing in the fact that they now had an excuse to hunt out and kill myna birds. Indeed Kristina asserts that culling “seems to be cheered along like it has legitimacy because there is a cultural thing in our country”[24].


What is deeply questionable about this practise, of course, is the ethics behind it. To rip life from any creature is a murderous act, and is wrong on a deep moral foundation of human society – a society built upon laws which imprison those who commit murder against each other. Why the law “thou shalt not kill”[25] is not even associated with culls is concerning. Maggie Towers, a science student majoring in zoology, has plenty of hunting experience under her belt due to her desire to be a ranger. When describing other pig hunters she was weary: “Some of the people you meet, are so sick… the way they talk about animals”[26]. Whatever the reason for culling, humans are taking responsibility for the duration of these animals’ lives – in other words, they are playing God.


When asked how long it takes for the feral populations to move back into an area, Towers stated: “it certainly reduces the population for a little while”[27], before adding that the success of a cull depends on the level of funding from government. It seems that commonly they only get enough funding for the first cull or two, then the money runs out and the animal numbers will bounce back.


Dr Richard Major from the Australian museum has also participated in culls, where last year he culled over 300 birds. When asked if he thought culling was really the only way, he stated “it is the most effective and cost efficient.”[28] He seemed uncertain, however, as to whether these culls have a great impact in the long term. He went on to say that “in the long term habitat restoration would probably be better”.[29]


The scenarios illustrated only lead us to wonder: Why are we adopting an unethical, inhumane practise when it is not even clear that it is effective?




Figure 5 News, 'Comment: Feral Cats 'Killling Hundreds Of Australian Animals''.


On April 9 2013, SBS Insight aired an episode ‘Eradicat’[30], which featured a compelling discussion surrounding Australia’s feral cat problem. Present at the discussion were a group of key stakeholders, ranging from Animal Welfare advocates to hunters.


It is here that Erica Trinder from Cat Rescue NSW stated that culling is not the answer – “it’s the method we’ve been trying for decades and it’s clearly not working. We need to try something new.”[31] When Wolf Sievers – who is in charge of the QLD threatened species unit – was asked if he thought that his team’s culling of the cats in QLD was effective he responded: “it makes us feel a bit better.”[32]


The panel succeeded in again highlighting the dualisms and conflicts regarding the native and non-native animals, which were described as “disgusting things”[33] by one audience member, with another stating that “we want to give our wildlife a fair go”[34]. Terrah Guymala, an Indigenous ranger from Arnhem Land described the native animals as a “totum”, stating “we need them alive… for their stories… [the non-natives] don’t belong to that country. They from different country.”[35]

Guymala’s thoughts are shared with many Australians: we want native species to remain here so that their stories can remain a part of our descendant’s lives – so that our grandchildren can also be enriched by their presence.[36] And then of course there’s the ultimate goal of biodiversity, a questionable goal in itself – to sustain a planet rich with life and variety.


Why the goal of biodiversity is questionable is due to the reasons that we strive for it: according to the Australian museum, biodiversity is important because of medicine, animal products, food, and animal bonds[37]; which are also four of the main areas in which we exploit animals, according to Peter Singer in Animal Liberation[38]. Other sources advocate that biodiversity offers many natural services, where all species have a part to play.[39]


The above statements calls into play many questions. Does ensuring a diverse planet equate to adopting cruelty? Do we sacrifice our ethics in order to sustain a diverse planet?

Also present at the panel was Kersti Seksel; a vet specialising in pet behaviour:


“Part of the problem is humans. At the end of the day, more animals are killed by humans by taking their habitat away, by running them over in cars – road kill is probably the highest one out there. And we’ve got to remember that we’re responsible – the humans were the ones who released [invasive species] out there - so it’s about educating humans. We need to manage the cats but realise that it’s a human problem, not a cat problem.”[40]


Seksel’s comments brings the overarching question “invasive species – villains or victims” to light, which in turn helps to answer previous questions regarding biodiversity. By pointing the finger at invasive species we are really avoiding responsibility; for the fact that we brought these creatures here, and according to Ms Vesk: “we owe them a duty of care because we are the ones who have taken them on and taken them to places like countries such as Australia”[41]. Surely then, rather than the villains that the media and government make them out to be, we should be viewing them as victims – victims of circumstance, and of us – humans.


They have been victims of the media, the government, out-dated research, and of unethical and ineffective culls. 

Habitat loss, change and fragmentation are listed prior to invasive species by the Australian government website as the major reason for extinction of native species in Australia.[42] Road kill is another major contributor. It may be true that a minimum estimate of 75 million native animals are killed daily by feral cats[43], but in that same time 259.2 million animals are killed in slaughterhouses[44]. If we must vilify feral cats, or any non-native species, we must firstly vilify ourselves and take steps to rectify our actions in an ethical way, before imposing death upon other species.


Instead of continuing the current historical trend in society which was to point our fingers, and our guns, at someone else – we need to own up to the problem and realise that we need to change our habits, first and foremost. The fact that we are unwilling to compromise – to change our lifestyles and yet are happy to rip away the lives of other living creatures is not only a selfish act, it is an insult to the future generation more so than letting native creatures go extinct. As Peter Singer compares animal suffering with the suffering that oppressed groups such as women, and the Black Liberation Movement[45] have experienced in the past; I wonder how future generations will view our attempts to vilify non-native animals in order to maintain biodiversity to this planet.


When extremely complex situations like these present themselves often it is hard to distinguish what is wrong, and what is right. But perhaps by paying attention to the ethics of what we are doing, and by acknowledging our responsibility for the issue, we will ultimately figure out for ourselves what is the right course of action.


Jennie Brockie, the presenter on Eradicat scoffed at Trinder’s suggestion to desex cats nation-wide – “that’s impractical”, she asserted.[46] But shipping a multitude of species over to Australia to solve problems of the past was what one can only imagine to have been a hard, if not ridiculous solution; and thus ridiculous problems must be met with seemingly impossible, laborious solutions.

Whilst much thought has gone into how to dwindle the numbers of invasive species in Australia, it is apparent that little attempt has occurred to determine the best way of co-existing with them - and in so doing appreciating them as part of ecologies.[47] Perhaps by recognising these species as victims, rather than villains, we can start to determine a way to do this.


References,. 'Cats Are Leading A New Wave Of Extinction – Opinion – ABC Environment (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)', 2014.,. 'The War On Feral Cats Begins', 2015.,. '1370.0 - Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002', 2015.


Aitken, Robert. The Holy Bible. New York: Arno Press, 1968.,. 'Introduced Animals', 2015.,. 'Food | Animal Equality', 2015.


Blanco, Joaquín J, and Adrian T Fernandes. 2012. Invasive Species. New York: Nova Science Publishers.


Colautti, Robert I., and Hugh J. MacIsaac. 2004. 'A Neutral Terminology To Define ‘Invasive’ Species'. Diversity And Distributions 10 (2): 135-141. doi:10.1111/j.1366-9516.2004.00061.x.,. 'Environment Protection And Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) Home Page | Department Of The Environment, Australian Government', 2015.,. 'Feral Animals In Australia | Department Of The Environment, Australian Government', 2015.,. 'Invasive Species - Home Page | Department Of The Environment', 2015.


Franklin, A., 2006. Animal Nation: The True Story of Animals and Australia, Sydney: UNSW Press.


Garnett, Ali, and Kaye Kessing. Easter Bilby. Australia: ARRFA, 1994.


Graham, William. Patterns In Nature: Some Thoughts On Invasive Species. Image, 2014.


'Insight: Eradicat'. TV programme. SBS, 2013.,. 'About Us « Invasive Animals CRC', 2015.,. 'Invasive Animals CRC', 2015.,. 'IUCN - United Nations Issues Guidelines To Minimize Risk Of Invasive Species', 2015.


Kirkpatrick, Karen. 'Have Invasive Species Caused Any Extinctions?'. Howstuffworks, 2015.


Kopp, Dr. 'Australian Suburban Wildlife'. Csse.Monash.Edu.Au, 2015.


Krien, Anna. Us And Them. Collingwood, Vic.: Black Inc., 2012.


Major, Richard. Interview with a bird expert. Interview by Thomas Wickert, Becky Godwin, Gwen Schumacher, Sam Widin. In person. The Australian Museum, Sydney, 2015.


Major, Richard. WANTED! Common “Indian” Mynas. Ebook. 1st ed. Sydney: Australian Museum Research Institute, 2015.


National Feral Camel Action Plan. Ebook. 1st ed., 2010.


News,. 'Comment: Feral Cats 'Killling Hundreds Of Australian Animals'', 2015.


Nuwer, Rachel, 'Feral Cats Kill Billions Of Small Critters Each Year'. Smithsonian, 2013.


O'Brien, "Exotic Invasions, Nativism, and Ecological Restoration: On the persistence of a contentious debate", Ethics, Place & Environment 9 (2006)).


Radio National,. 'In Praise Of Invasive Species', 2015.


Ripple, W. J., J. A. Estes, R. L. Beschta, C. C. Wilmers, E. G. Ritchie, M. Hebblewhite, and J. Berger et al. 'Status And Ecological Effects Of The World's Largest Carnivores'. Science 343, no. 6167 (2014): 1241484-1241484. doi:10.1126/science.1241484.


Ross, Alexandra. Interview with a biology student. Interview by Gwen Schumacher. In person. UNSW, 2015.




Singer, Peter. 'A Utilitarian Defence Of Animal Liberation'. Environmental Ethics: Readings In Theory And Application 3 (2001): 33-39.


Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. New York, N.Y.: New York Review of Books, 1990.


Towers, Maggie. Interview with a student and pig hunter. Interview by Sam Widin, Emma Horsburgh In person. Over skype, 2015.


Vesk, Kristina. Invasive species discussion. Interview by Rebecca Godwin. In person. Cat Protection Society Newtown, 2015.


Van Dooren, Thom. 2011. 'Invasive Species In Penguin Worlds: An Ethical Taxonomy Of Killing For Conservation'. Conservation And Society 9 (4): 286. doi:10.4103/0972-4923.92140.


Why Biodiversity Matters. Panel. Sydney: Australian Museum, 2015.


Wildlife Matters. Ebook. 1st ed., 2013.


Wright, Katherine. 'Bunnies, Bilbies, And The Ethic Of Ecological Remembrance”'. M/C Journal 15, no. 3 (2012): 1-6.



Fieldwork Log


Interview 1

Participant’s name: Richard Major

Date of interview: September 29

Location of Interview: Australian Museum

Students present: Thomas Wickert, Rebecca Godwin, Gwen Schumacher, Sam Windin


Interview 2

Participant’s name: Paul Mahon

Date of interview: September 30

Location of Interview: Heritage office

Students present: Sam Windin


Interview 3

Participant’s name: Kristina Vesk

Date of interview: October 1

Location of Interview: Newtown Cat Protection Society

Students present: Rebecca Godwin


Interview 4

Participant’s name: Maggie Towers

Date of interview: October 2

Location of Interview: Skpe

Students present: Sam Windin, Emma Horsburgh


Interview 5

Participant’s name: Alexandra Ross

Date of interview: October 13

Location of Interview: UNSW

Students present: Gwen Schumacher




[1], '1370.0 - Measuring Australia's Progress, 2002'.


[2], 'Invasive Species - Home Page | Department Of The Environment'.


[3], 'The War On Feral Cats Begins'.


[4] Vesk, Interview with CEO of Cat Protection Society.


[5] Ross, Interview with a UNSW biology honours student.


[6] Major, Interview with a bird expert.


[7], 'Invasive Animals CRC'.




[9] Wright, 'Bunnies, Bilbies, and the Ethic of Ecological Remembrance”'.


[10] Garnett and Kessing, Easter Bilby.


[11] Wright, Op. cit. p1.


[12] Ibid. p2


[13] Ross, Interview with a UNSW biology honours student.


[14], 'Feral Animals In Australia | Department Of The Environment, Australian Government'.


[15] National Feral Camel Action Plan.


[16] Ibid, p7.




[18], 'Environment Protection And Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) Home Page | Department Of The Environment, Australian Government'.


[19] Seymour, Op cit.


[20] Ibid, .


[21] Ross, op cit.


[22] Major, WANTED! Common “Indian” Mynas.


[23] Major, interview with a bird expert.


[24] Vesk, op cit.


[25] Aitken, The Holy Bible.


[26] Towers, Interview with a student and pig hunter.


[27] Ibid.


[28] Major, op. cit.


[29] Ibid.


[30] 'Insight: Eradicat'.


[31] Ibid.


[32] Ibid.


[33] 'Insight: Eradicat'.


[34] Ibid.


[35] Ibid.


[36] Wildlife Matters. Ebook – Australian Wildlife Conservancy


[37] Why Biodiversity Matters. Panel – Australian Museum


[38] Singer, Animal Liberation.


[39] Ripple et al., 'Status And Ecological Effects Of The World's Largest Carnivores'.


[40] 'Insight: Eradicat'.


[41] Vesk, op. cit.


[42] Op cit.


[43] Wildlife Matters. Op cit.


[44], 'Food | Animal Equality'.


[45] Singer, 'A Utilitarian Defence Of Animal Liberation'.


[46] 'Insight: Eradicat'


[47] Van Dooren, 2011.

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