IN THE NEWS: The ethics of trapping, shooting and baiting feral animals

IN THE NEWS: On MAY 12, 2014

A trap snaps shut onto the paw of an unsuspecting dingo. It howls in pain and surprise as the trap holds on; it won't let go until a bullet puts the wild dog out of its misery.

If the dingo is unlucky there will be no bullet, just a long, lingering death.

It's the fate of many wild dogs around the country, which farmers say are savaging their livestook and livelihoods.

Farmers have been counting the cost and mourning the loss of valuable and vulnerable sheep and cattle that have been mauled by wild dogs for centuries. No sympathy there.

Just ask Ashley Dowden, who recently hosted a baiting day on his West Australian property, Challa Station, for pastoralists from the Murchison region.

There, 30 pairs of willing hands cut two tonnes of horsemeat into 40,000 bite-sized pieces and then injected them with highly toxic sodium fluoroacetate, also known as poison 1080, to be spread across the 10 participating pastoral properties.

'We were losing ewes and lambs in the holding paddock,' he says. 'You'd go back next morning ... and there'd be 10 or 20 dead sheep there. It was all pretty devastating.'

'We made the decision we weren't going to sit by and watch our stock be eaten.'

Neighbouring pastoralist John Wainwright shares Ashley's attitude. He spends little, if any, time dwelling on what ingesting the surprise package buried within the meatballs will do to the dogs.

'Everywhere you go you've gotta carry baits with you. And just keep at it. Every time you see a track—bait!' he says.

When the Tasmanian government decided last week to overturn a ban on 1080, the move was applauded by farmers.

Conservationists, too, tend to reserve public sympathy for the targets of feral animals; the wildlife caught up unsuspectingly in widespread efforts to trap, poison and kill pests like dogs, pigs, foxes and rabbits. 

The plight of feral animals is a hard sell.

While government websites outline how to use poison 1080, it's difficult to find any description of its effect on animals. 

However, veterinary warnings for pet owners whose dogs gets too inquisitive say signs of poisoning start with frenzied behaviour like running around in circles, howling, hypersensitivity to light and sound, vomiting, urinating and defecating uncontrollably. Symptoms then progress to muscle tremors, seizures, fitting, difficulty breathing and, finally, coma and death.

In the wild, 1080 can take between one and two days to kill, depending on the animal. It can be a protracted, slow process. But few people witness it.

One person who has seen death by poison close up is scientist Clive Marks.

He describes himself as an unusual hybrid; a scientist and conservationist involved in animal research focused on improving pest control, but also a person committed to better animal welfare outcomes.

Dr Marks is director of Nocturnal Wildlife Research, has led research and development to improve monitoring and control of feral cats, red foxes, rabbits and wild dogs, and was the head of Vertebrate Pest Research in Victoria for over a decade.

His laboratory was the first to attempt a program specifically aimed at developing more humane approaches to pest control.

'Emotion is not really part of the scientific method, but we have shot ourselves in the foot by not suggesting we are concerned and we are even emotionally involved when we see animals suffering,' he says. 'And that matters ... to me personally, and it should matter to everybody else.'

He wrote recently about his 'inner thoughts and conflicting feelings associated with animal experimentation undertaken to improve the humaneness of feral cat control'.

He's a realist, and accepts the need for feral pest controls, but not at any expense. 

'When either the victim or the nature of its suffering is anonymous, it is much easier to maintain a still pond of stagnant ethics,' he says. 

Outside the lab, he once wrote of an encounter with a grizzled dogger putting a bullet in a trapped dingo:

Wading into the bracken the trapper detaches the twisted wire snare from the dead animal's leg and scoops up the dog in both arms. Flies swarm about him like angry bees, and then with a mighty lunge he propels the body into thick scrub. There is a hollow thud and dry sticks crack as the body rolls down the hill, to be tangled and consumed by the scrub, comfortably out of sight. 

'At least you see it. Ya know what I mean?' he asks. 

'That's the problem with ya poisons, ya never see the animals ya kill and ya just don't know what happens to 'em.'

'That just doesn't seem right to me. Ya got to see it,' and he stabs his head over towards where the dead dingo now lies discarded in the scrub, and I sense that he has more to tell, but no easy way to do it.

The trapper pulls a packet of 'Roll Your Own' papers from the top pocket in his red chequered flannel shirt and in a fluid motion licks his lips and sticks the paper to the corner of his mouth.  'But it ain't easy is it ... for most people?' he says, an eyebrow raised with the fag paper fluttering in the wind, as he goes in search of his tobacco and a matchbox in his stained canvas trousers. 

'Seeing it I mean,' he adds, 'That feeling too…' he offers without elaboration, lost for words again.

In a well-practiced routine he rolls a cigarette in silence and lights it and eyes me crookedly as the smoke from the match stings his eyes. 

'But that's the deal. Ya gotta see it. That's what I reckon. That's the deal mate.'

Having seen it, Dr Marks believes 'most of the arguments used to justify the need for good animal welfare practices have little relevance to the invasive species conundrum. It is a topic that has largely been left out in the cold.'

He believes that's because the community is never confronted with the impacts of pest management practices—be they trapping, gassing, or poisons like 1080—there is no significant challenge nor demand for research to garner better approaches.

'A lot of landholders and farmers have been short-changed because they've been led to believe there is a lot of crazy people in the city who are against them and think they are inhumane, when the truth is they should be uniting with those crazy people and demanding the government invest in things that are better.'

'What do you do to do something better? To make sure people have a right to farm and ensure animal welfare is protected?'

However, any change to the current regime will be expensive, warns Dr Marks, which is the reason better approaches are not emerging.

Dr Marks is working on a control agent called PAPP (p-aminopropiophenone), which is familiar to Ricky Spencer, a founding member of the Native and Pest Animal Unit in the School of Natural Sciences University of Western Sydney and former senior research scientist at the Invasive Animals CRC, who is now working on ways of controlling feral cats.

'We're looking at developing a way to exploit cat behaviour,' he says. 'Cats know what they eat and eat what they know.'

'When a cat gets something on its coat, it will lick it off, so we'll start developing technology that could be released so that when a cat walks past it in the field, it will get a spray of poison, lick it off and get the dose that way.'

Dr Spencer says that, used in this way, PAPP is more humane than 1080.

'It works like carbon monoxide poisoning [and] changes the animal's haemoglobin so it can't collect oxygen.'

The cat runs around, gets tired, goes to sleep and is dead within 20 minutes. But according to Dr Spencer, it's difficult to introduce new pest management methods.

'The problem is it's a small industry so you have only one or two players in the market, in terms of broad scale pest management ... and they've got this staple product [1080],' he says.

He worries that without developing other products or delivery modes, resistance or learned behaviours could emerge in pest animals which could help them avoid controls down the track.

'We hear [people] put out baits but nothing much happens. This could be one of the reasons.'

Once bitten—or gassed, poisoned and trapped—twice shy.

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