An autonomous device developed in Australia known as the ‘Felixer’ is proving a vital tool for ecologists seeking to minimise the threat of feral cats without endangering native wildlife.
Cats and other introduced predators like foxes have wreaked havoc with conservation efforts for decades, so much so that most projects to reintroduce threatened species now only occur on isolated islands where pests have been wiped out.
Baiting programs have so far proved unsuccessful and often counterproductive as cats prefer to eat prey they’ve attacked themselves, leaving the poisoned baits lying around for consumption by some other sort of animal.
The Felixer, developed by the University of Adelaide’s Dr John Read, only delivers its poison when it detects a cat has approached thanks to the configuration of different laser sensors.
“A cat will trigger the two middle sensors and not trigger the top and bottom sensor,” said UNSW's Dr Katherine Moseby, who led a project with Read where 20 Felixer devices were scattered around a 2600 hectare paddock in South Australia.
“And it also knows the timing of the cat's walk so it can detect that a cat is walking past at a normal cat speed.
“So it's the pattern in which the sensors are broken and the timing of that pattern that leads the Felixer to determine that ‘well, this must be a cat’, and it fires a gel out through a hole in the side that squirts onto the cat's flank.”
The Felixer was 100 percent accurate in its identification of cats in the most recent study.
“All the cats that we were aware of that passed in front of a Felixer during the trial and got squirted – they all died,” Moseby said.
That represents 33 cats, or about two-thirds of the local feral cat population at the trial site eradicated within six weeks.
“The ones that didn't die were the ones that didn't go in front of the Felixer. So if we'd left the traps there longer, we could have potentially eradicated cats from the area.”
The method of delivery has an added failsafe in that the gel relies on cats’ unique compulsion to lick their fur clean, ensuring they ingest the poison and don’t leave it laying around.
Moseby added that knowing other animals won’t be harmed allows the dose of 1080 poison administered by the Felixer to be set to a higher level to allow for a quicker, more humane death.
The device could be used to ensure rewilding and repopulation programs with threatened species like quolls and bilbies have a chance on the mainland.
“I've been doing reintroductions of threatened species for 20 years and almost every reintroduction attempt that you do in the wild fails due to cat or fox predation," Moseby said.
“When you see these beautiful, threatened native species, just time and time again being ripped apart by cats and foxes, you realise that although cats are really amazing animals, they don't belong in the wild.
“And they're really causing huge impacts to our threatened species.”