It was about 4am on a dark Tasmanian morning and I was heading for Hobart airport for a 6am flight. I was driving along twisting country roads, taking it easy for the sake of ambush wombats and my rental car excess. Rounding a corner I saw a movement on the road, I saw spots, white on brown covering the body and tail, and I just had time for a glimpse of the whole creature as it turned to run for the bushes. And that was it! My first ever glimpse of a wild quoll! Several years would pass before my next, also in Tasmania, this time a female eastern quoll and her four half-grown young.
Although two species of quoll still persist in Tasmania, they are no longer common near Canberra where I live. In fact, despite their former abundance, quolls are in decline across much of Australia, and conservation of these native marsupial predators and their ecological roles is paramount. As native predators such as quolls have disappeared from the Australian landscape, they have been replaced by introduced species. This is no coincidence: there is good evidence that cats and foxes have negative impacts on quolls, as well as many other Australian animals. So, if cats are bad for Australia, but quolls are good, what can we do to reduce the impacts of cats, and promote quoll conservation?
One idea that has popped up several times (e.g. here, here and here) since I’ve lived in Australia is a bid to encourage Australians to adopt native species as pets. Last week Senator David Leyonhjelm revived this debate: “Just as cats and dogs are in no danger of dying out, the same will be true if native animals are privately owned. It means they have value.” It seems a straightforward prospect: instead of a cat, adopt a quoll; instead of a bunny, adopt a bilby; instead of an introduced pest species, adopt a native. And lets face it, quolls and bilbies are seriously cute. I will put it out there right now, I would LOVE to have a pet quoll.
But… of course you knew there was a “but” coming… although I would love a pet quoll for many reasons, conservation is not one of them. In fact, I am concerned that, if not implemented properly, any attempt to start a pet trade will increase the threats to native wildlife conservation. So let’s think this through: could we, and should we, domesticate Australian mammals? Can we tame them to save them? And yes, I know this is very mammal-centric, but look at the most common pets you encounter in Australian society: cats, dogs, rabbits, mice…
There is already good evidence that we could domesticate Australian mammals, or at least some species. Quoll husbandry may be relatively straightforward, while one Australian marsupial, the sugar glider, is a popular pet in the USA, and both the Spinifex hopping mouse and the plains rat can be kept as pets in New South Wales. Anecdotally, I have heard that some quolls, possums and wallabies reared from juveniles have made very good pets. Or take, for example, Mike Archer’s account of his pet western quoll: “Bright and quick to learn, far more affectionate and attentive than a cat, intently curious, happy to play on his own but clearly happier to play with me, active particularly in the late afternoons and evenings and asleep at more or less the same times as me, puppy-like when playing even as an adult, careful to mouth without biting, content to fall asleep in my lap, generally very quiet with only ‘purring’, clicks or ‘nark!’ sounds rather than yowls or barks, no ‘spraying’ or other stinky habits, and generally fascinating.”
Perhaps not all Australian mammals are quite so amenable to human interactions (I’m looking at you, antechinus!), but a targeted breeding program may well be able to select for desirable traits in just a few generations. However, the process of domestication will undoubtedly lead to changes in appearance and behaviour: just compare domesticated dogs to wolves for extreme examples of this (although note that dogs are unlikely to be direct descendants of modern wolves, but rather a now-extinct ancient wolf population).
Whilst I’m certainly not advocating the adoption of pet foxes in Australia, Russian experiments in fox domestication provide fascinating insight into the mammal domestication process and I encourage anyone interested to read this detailed account of the research. The précis behind these experiments was that domestication selects for certain behaviours, and the genes that regulate these behaviours also influence other aspects of an animal’s development, including morphology and physiology.
Foxes were selected for tameness and monitored over 35+ generations. Each fox cub was categorised according to its degree of domestication (whether it displayed aggression, allowed humans to pet it etc.). After only six generations of breeding an additional category had to be created, to account for fox cubs that actively sought human attention. After eight to ten generations, novel traits started to appear in a small proportion of the foxes, including changes in coat colour, floppy ears, curled tails and shorter legs.Hormonal changes were also observed, with a decrease in production of corticosteroids in tamer foxes and changes in the fear responses of cubs, suggesting that domesticated foxes respond differently to stress than their wild counterparts.
If we compare today’s companion pets and agricultural breeds to their wild relatives, we see that this is a familiar pattern: look at pigs with curly tails, piebald horses and miniature rabbits. Meanwhile, sugar glider breeders have developed an array of coat colour variations. In a world where the unusual is desirable, how long would it take for variant forms to become popular in other marsupial pets? In their post earlier this week, Guy Ballard et al planted the idea of a “teacup quoll” in my mind, but how about an “inverse quoll” with black spots on white, a leucistic wallaby (the white wallabies on Bruny Island are already a tourism drawcard), or a lop-eared bilby? In a well-regulated pet trade, with controls to avoid the inbreeding and harmful traits that have afflicted so many dog breeds, this might be perfectly acceptable from an animal welfare perspective. But I don’t think we could call this wildlife conservation!
So, should we domesticate Australian mammals and can this help to conserve them? Mike Archer’s argument that “the more thriving colonies there are of any creature, animal or plant, captive or wild, the less likely that creature is to disappear” is true, and captive breeding is already a last resort for many critically endangered species. But should this argument be extended beyond species recovery programs driven by science, to a pet trade driven by the market? Or is there a middle ground? Personally I have no conceptual problem with a pet trade in Australian wildlife. If we are going to have pets (and I do) then why not natives? I’ve already told you I would love to have a pet quoll. But to buy in to this as a reality, I need to be convinced that it will not instead cause harm to wildlife conservation. And I am not yet convinced. Here are some of the reasons why:
Wildlife crime and poaching
Whilst there are many responsible pet owners and breeders out there who only want the best for the animals that they love, it is undeniable that wildlife crime is a significant worldwide problem, and a sizeable component of this is the exotic pet trade. Any new breeding program to supply quolls or bilbies or pygmy possums is likely to produce limited numbers of animals, at least in the early years. This will surely provide incentive for a black market in animals poached from the wild for backyard breeding or overseas collectors. We know this already happens to Australian reptiles and parrots, so it would be irresponsible to exacerbate this threat to wild mammal populations without providing additional resources to fight wildlife crime.
The risk of establishing new pests
Australia already has an oversupply of pets. Take a look at Pet Rescue or your local pound to see the thousands of dogs, cats and other animals looking for new homes this week. In the 2013-2014 financial year, over 22,000 cats and dogs were euthanised according to Australian RSPCA data. Releases of unwanted or escaped fish, birds and reptiles already threaten to establish new invasive species in Australia. Whilst adopting native Australian pets may reduce these risks, it is important to remember that “native to Australia” does not mean “native to ALL of Australia”. A Western Australian species in the Sydney region or vice versa may be as big a threat to the local flora and fauna as a foreign import. Kookaburras, which were introduced to both Tasmania and Western Australia, displace native birds from nest hollows and predate on native wildlife. It is likely that sugar gliders are not native to Tasmania and recent research has revealed the devastating effects of their predation on threatened swift parrots. If we start moving marsupials around the continent, we might find that discarded pets start to displace their local relatives, or hybridise with them, with unpredictable results for conservation. Strict controls on movements of high-risk species and requirements for pets to be neutered might mitigate these effects, but history suggests that some people at least will still ignore the rules.
Replacing pet cats will not reduce the impacts of feral cats
I agree that it seems wrong to allow people to breed cats, which have a devastating impact on native Australian wildlife, and yet forbid those same people from breeding threatened native species. But let’s not kid ourselves, even if every cat owner in Australia agreed to a cat amnesty today and traded in their moggy for a quoll (and I am sure you can guess how likely that would be…), that still does nothing to reduce the population of feral cats out there, breeding and eating and driving native species ever closer to extinction. It is difficult to put an exact number on the Australian feral cat population, but it is safe to say there are lots of them and they are all over the place. The cats have been out of the bag for decades, and it may be an impossible task to try to put them back in. If we really want to tackle Australia’s cat problem, mandatory desexing and containment of pet cats, plus substantial investments in feral cat research and control, would be far better strategies.
A single-species approach will not conserve Australia’s ecosystems
One of the arguments in favour of native pets is that this will place a value on these species, which will raise awareness of them and encourage people to conserve them. Better to have quolls in captivity than not at all? Well, perhaps, but surely far better again to have them in a healthy ecosystem, where they have important ecological roles. Placing a high value on one or two pet species suggests that we place little value on the “ugly” or less charismatic animals, and far less on the ecosystem as a whole, which is a terrible shame, because Australia is an amazing place with an incredible evolutionary history. Not to mention that a healthy ecosystem is surely good for humanity…? Can wildlife not simply exist for its own sake? If we are serious about conserving charismatic species like quolls, it would be far more effective to tackle the processes that threaten them in their natural habitats (habitat loss, feral pests…) while we still have time. Who knows, if we are successful, we might accidentally save the rest of Australia’s wildlife in the process.
At the end of the day, if we start a new discussion about changing the regulations on domestication of Australian wildlife, then this may provide a great opportunity to establish an ethical and well-regulated pet trade for the most appropriate species. But let’s not pretend that our primary motivation for doing so is wildlife conservation!