A CBC “Off the Beaten Track” episode in which I talk about what happens when you bring in cats to eradicate mice. Originally aired on September 22, 2000 on CBC Radio’s Mainstreet program in Prince Edward Island.
The Marion Island Cat Eradication Program
Introduction: In 1949, five domestic house cats were introduced to Marion Island to help control a problem with house mice. By 1977, these five cats had multiplied to 3,400 cats and had eaten several bird species to extinction. This situation begat the “Feral Cat Eradication Program,” which, over the course of 19 years eliminated all of the cats from the Island. This is their story. WARNING TO AUDIENCE: This feature contains discussion of the killing of house cats. Sensitive viewers and cat lovers may wish to go away for 5 minutes.
The House Mouse Problem
- The word mouse has no scientific meaning – it’s used generically to describe small rat-like rodents.
- The house mouse is one of a greater family of rodents that includes mice, rats, voles, gerbils and hamsters.
- Your average house mouse is brown or gray, can be up to 8 inches long, including their tail.
- House mice mature quickly, and can mate 2 to 3 months after birth; gestation takes about 3 weeks, and litters can include up to 12 young.
- The house mouse is native to Eurasia, but has been spread around the world.
- If you do the math, you can see that two mice can produce many millions of ancestors in rather short order – two mice mating can result in 2000 mice six months later.
- Sometime around 1818, sealers using Marion Island as a base inadvertently introduced house mice to the Island.
- House mice feed on invertebrates, which are otherwise an important part of the Island’s food chain.
- And house mice seek the food and shelter of human dwellings, so the mice became a problem for the people manning the South African weather station on Marion Island.
The House Cat “Solution”
- The house cat is a member of a family of animals that includes leopards, cougars, and pumas.
- Your average house cat weighs 6 to 10 pounds, and is 21 to 28 inches long.
- Cats reach puberty at 9 or 10 months, can have up to 3 litters a year, and an average litter contains 4 kittens.
- We humans, it is said, first domesticated cats about 3,500 years ago when Egyptians used them to protect their granaries from mice.
- And in 1949, the South African residents of Marion Island decided to introduce house cats to the Island for the same reason – to rid the island of the house mice that had been there for almost 150 years.
- And so five cats (a neutered orange male tabby cat, a black and white female, and 3 kittens) were brought to Marion Island in 1949.
- How naïve they were…
- Two unexpected things happened:
- The cats liked eating birds more than they liked eating mice – and were eating some species of birds to extinction
- The cats multiplied (maybe not so unexpected!)
- A feral cat is simply a sort of cat that, once domesticated, has returned to the wild.
- The result was that by 1977, there were 3,405 feral cats on Marion Island, and the cats were causing far more ecological damage than the mice they were brought to control.
A Note about Feral Cat Eradication
- The problem of feral cats is one we see all over the world – a world where people don’t spay or neuter cats, and where they thoughtlessly abandon their domestic cats on the edge of town.
- In many cities, their any colonies of feral cats, and these colonies are blamed – rightly or wrongly – for everything from spreading rabies, spreading disease, and eating birds.
- There are two strong factions in the “feral cat problem” world:
- The eradicators think that we should gather up feral cats and kill them.
- The trap-neuter-vaccinate-release people advocate trapping cats, spaying or neutering them, vaccinating them against disease and then releasing them back to the wild.
- In 1977, it was decided to take the eradication route, and thus began the “Marion Island Cat Eradication Program.”
Marion Island Cat Eradication Program
- Step one was to introduce feline panleucopenia into the cat population.
- Feline panleucopenia, commonly known as distemper, is an extremely contagious virus that is, roughly, “the flu for cats.”
- The symptoms are similar to those of the flu in humans: coughing and sneezing, vomiting, and diarrhea.
- It rarely lasts for more than a week, but it has a very high mortality rate.
- Feline panleucopenia was introduced into the cat population on Marion Island, and it killed a lot of cats: by 1982, the population was estimated to have shrunk from 3,400 to 615.
- Then the cats developed immunity to the virus, and with less competition for food, cats with immunity survived and multiplied.
- In 1986, with the population on the rise again, it was decided to hunt the cats as a secondary measure: eight 2-man teams using spotlights and 12-bore shotguns killed approximately 803 cats this way.
- Hunting proved not effective enough to eradicate all of the cats.
- In 1989 and 1991, traps were used to try and capture the remaining cats.
- In April 1991, only 8 cats were trapped.
- It’s now believed that cats have been completely eradicated from Marion Island…
- 19 years later!
The Situation Today
- Now that the cat problem has been solved, researchers are turning again to the problem of house mice.
- Biologist Charl Louw is on Marion Island this year doing research on the house mouse problem, looking at population size and growth, trapping, marking, and releasing mice.
- And the Marion Island Cat Eradication Program is held up by the anti-eradication advocates as an example of why cat eradication won’t work in urban areas (if it took 19 years in a closed system like Marion… etc.)
Coming up this Friday on CBC Prince Edward Island’s Main Street: The Marion Island Cat Eradication Program. This is story of how 5 house cats were introduced to remote Marion Island in 1949, multiplying to 3,400 cats by 1977, and how it took 19 years to rid the island of them. Listen live on Friday, Sept. 22 at 4:30 p.m. AST, or watch here for a RealAudio link.
I’ve spent the balance of the day trying to re-register Internet names in the CA domain (i.e. reinvented.ca). Up until recently registration in the CA domain was free, and was maintained by an arm of UBC. Administration of the domain is in the process of being switched to a new organization called CIRA (which seems to just be CANARIE in disguise). The process is not going well. I opted to use webnames to do the re-registration — they’re one of the new “CIRA-accredited” private outfits that process registrations for a fee. Everything went pretty smoothly on the webnames website — I selected and paid for the domain names in question and got a receipt along with a password to take me to a special page on the CIRA website where I’m supposed to read and agree to abide by an [insane] multi-page [316K!] document. This is where the “fun” starts. CIRA was obviously woefully unprepared for this exercise, and their software was under-tested, for I received a variety of errors throughout the day ranging from SQL server “too many connections” errors to scripting errors to simply having my connection to their webserver refused. To quote a technical support person from webnames, when asked about CIRA: “their website’s basically fucked.” At this point, I’ve managed to process three of four domains. It’s taken about 8 hours. Sigh.
A sad and interesting visit to the planet They Just Don’t Get It this morning to buy a box of envelopes. I used to buy all of our office supplies at Carters in Charlottetown. This was when they were located in a spledid historic building on Queen St., and had a store with all the good characteristics of an old time stationer. And then they moved. In what seemed like an odd move, Carters gave up their Queen St. location and moved to the old Zellers store on Kent St., into what amounts to a modern piece of innocuous architecture; accompanying this was a rapid descent into mediocrity. Since they moved, I’ve [rather sheepishly] been shopping at Staples, the new bigbox-stationer cum computer store in the suburbs. With our recent move downtown, I thought I should give Carters another try, and so when the need arose to purchase a box of envelopes, off I went.
I shouldn’t have bothered.
I quickly found my box of envelopes and walked up to the cash, where I spent 5 minutes in line waiting for the clerk to complete a complex series of tasks with another customer (to her credit, she may have been assisting NASA with Space Shuttle operations). Once it was my turn to pay, I spent another 3 or 4 minutes waiting for her to enter a complex series of commands into her computer that would, I presume, release title to the envelopes to me (I lost track after about 50 keystrokes). When this was completed, I received a giant 8 by 10 receipt and my envelopes.
Now I have never been a stationer myself, and perhaps I am unaware of the subtle data processing demands of the profession, but it seems like a more logical customer service path to strive might be something like: “I walk in, pick up a box of envelopes, pay, leave.” I that in a sane world this would take about 42 seconds. And if it did, Carters would have my stationery business forever.
Okay. I just wrote four cheques to the various heads of the beast that is Island Tel. One cheque for my residential telephone line. One cheque for my business telephone line. One cheque for my cellular telephone. One cheque for my high-speed Internet service.
Does this make any sense? Shouldn’t the smart people at Island Tel be able to figure out how to consolidate all of this into one bill? And why would I hire Island Tel to solve my business problems if they can’t appear to solve this simple problem?
Oddly enough, the friendly customer service agent told me that I can get my high-speed Internet and residential telephone service on the same bill, but only if I sign up for a PrimePak. Weird.
A CBC “Off the Beaten Track” episode in which I talk about the other Prince Edward Island, in the southern Indian ocean. Originally aired on September 8, 2000 on CBC Radio’s Mainstreet program in Prince Edward Island.
Introduction: There is another Prince Edward Island, or rather “Prince Edward Islands,” located in the southern Indian Ocean and part of South Africa since 1949. Marion Island, one of the two Prince Edward Islands is current home to a meteorological station, and former home to some 3,400 feral cats. Prince Edward Island, the other of the two, is uninhabited and, indeed, people aren’t allowed on it without a special permit. This is their story.
Imagine a Prince Edward Island where…
- …it’s cool and stormy most of the year, with an average temperature of 4 degrees.
- …there are gale force winds 100 days of the year.
- …the soil isn’t red and soft, but craggy and volcanic.
- …the dominant vegetable isn’t the potato, but the cabbage.
- …there’s so much concern for the environment, and a fear of mice, that you need a special permit from the government just to visit.
- …chief impediments to tourism are danger from aggressive male seals and the possibility of having your boat smashed on the rocks while landing.
This is the “other” Prince Edward Island…
- This is the “other” Prince Edward Island, and could very well be the “Bizarro” Prince Edward Island in for “Bizarro Superman” it is so opposite to ours.
- In fact they are located at 46 degrees south while we’re located at 46 degrees north and are called “the jewel of the Southern Ocean” (rather than the “Garden of the Gulf”).
- Located about 1900 km off the coast of South Africa in the southern Indian Ocean, the “other” Prince Edward Island is one of a pair of sister Islands – the other is Marion Island – collectively called, oddly enough, “the Prince Edward Islands.”
- Prince Edward Island, South Africa, is 45 square kilometers in size, while it’s sister Marion Island is 290 square kilometers.
- They’re both craggy volcanic islands, windswept, cold, rainy and quite unlike the Prince Edward Island we know and love.
Lost, then Found…
- In 1663, Dutchman Barent Lam discovered the two islands on his way east; he named them Dina and Maerseveen (after his ship).
- Some time after this, the Dutch tried to find the islands again, but couldn’t (Lam had recorded the wrong latitude) and they were given up for lost.
- 100 years later in 1772 the islands were rediscovered by a French naval officer Marion du Fresne, who named them le de la Caverne and le de l’Esperance
- In 1776, explorer Captain James Cook – only a decade after he spent five years based in Halifax, and three years before he died – visited the islands, and renamed them collectively the Prince Edward Islands.
- Over the following 175 years the larger of the two islands came to be known as Marion Island by sealers who used the islands as a base.
- In 1949 South Africa annexed the islands, and the weird Prince Edward Island / Prince Edward Islands / Marion Island naming scheme stuck.
Prince Edward Island Today
- Since 1949, South Africa has had a presence on the Island when it established a permanent weather office.
- I exchanged email with Chris de Wet, who is the team leader of “Marion 57,” which is the 57th expedition from South Africa.
- They’re a motley group of 10 people, meteorologists, biologists, a radio technician, a diesel mechanic and a medic.
- They’ve got a fully stocked hospital, complete with dentist’s chair and x-ray machine, telephone and Internet hookups, laboratories, and a gymnasium.
- In addition to the weather station, which is staffed 24 hours a day, there’s research monitoring seal populations, sea bird populations, the effects on longline fishing on birds, and the impact of feral house mice on the Island.
- I asked Chris what inspired him to take such a remote posting and he said he jumped at the opportunity – he says he’s an outdoor fanatic, and welcomed the opportunity to get away from the “rat race.”
Tourism on the Islands
- During my research, I found an interesting paper called “Environmental impact assessment of possible tourism at Marion Island,” published by the South African Government, which looked at how tourism on the Islands would affect the environment.
- I asked Chris about the possibility of tourism, and he suggested that because of the hard environment and lack of infrastructure, he didn’t think there’s was much chance of this happening, and if it did, it would be more of a “friendly outdoor laboratory” for scientists as opposed to something for “holiday makers.”
- I also asked Chris is the members of his team had ever heard of “our” Prince Edward Island and I was surprised to find they hadn’t – but they found us on the globe!
- He added that he doesn’t think that most people in South Africa have never heard of “his” Prince Edward Island, so we shouldn’t feel so bad if we haven’t.
Next Time on “Off the Beaten Track”
- Remember I mentioned that there’s research going on about the “impact of feral house mice” on the Island?
- That’s a longstanding problem: house mice aren’t native to the Islands — sealers introduced them sometime over the last century.
- In 1949, in an attempt to rid the islands of house mice, five house cats were introduced.
- By 1977 these five cats had multiplied to some 3,400 cats.
- Next time we’ll hear their story, and the story of the “Marion Island Cat Eradication Program.”