The poison bait debate: Feral dogs a serious threat, warns trapper

Wild dogs are a threat to stock and native animals.

By ALYSHA HUXLEY 

Children might be at risk from wild dog attack in Gippsland, a feral animal trapper warns.

Dominic Bromilow, a director of the animal control company Deepergreen, said he would “not be surprised if a kid gets dragged into the bush by a dog”.

“I’m just waiting on the dog packs that are feeding on the deer up the bush to go through a starvation process, such as after a big bushfire, and they’ll raid a campsite.”

Mr Bromilow said the changing population – with larger numbers of tree-changers from the city – might be exacerbating the risks.

“With more city people coming out here they are saying, ‘rather than control them we should let them run free’,” he said.

Neerim South Landcare secretary Philip Darton, who lives in Baw Baw Shire, said his organisation’s concern was not with wild dogs, but with other pest species such as “foxes, rabbits, deer and cats and their predation on wildlife”. 

Melbourne Water spokesperson Paul Pearson said he knew there were some wild dogs in the Baw Baw region, specifically in the Tarago Reservoir water catchment, but their numbers weren’t believed to be large. 

Mr Bromilow said although wild dogs caused issues in and around the Baw Baw and Latrobe Shires by killing stock and native animals, their numbers were intermittent and their range large, as they often moved on.

“Populations fluctuate but the damage they do is severe and they can do a lot of damage very quickly,” he said.

A spokesperson from the Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP) said the majority of wild dog incidents occurred in Eastern Gippsland.

“Wild dogs are a significant challenge for Victoria’s livestock industry at an annual estimated cost of between $13-$18 million. These pests seriously challenge livestock producers, impacting on productivity, animal welfare and social wellbeing,” the spokesperson said.

But they also said overall wild dog management programs were having success.

“We have data that indicates the number of stock killed is actually reducing year on year, program wide and at the local level while some localities are experiencing increases, the overall trend is downward.”

Widespread use is made of poison baits.

Controversy with poison baits 

One of the principal means used to control feral dogs and other pests such as foxes and rabbits is the poison bait 1080.

Its use remains a controversial topic for locals and the scientific community. 

Hunter Dean Murphy said his hunting dog Jack, a short-haired pointer, took a bait poisoned with 1080, in Benambra, eastern Victoria and died horribly. 

“He was running everywhere, banging into furniture and he wouldn’t come to me when I called – which was very strange,” he said.

“Then he began frothing at the mouth and having seizures. It was pretty horrific.”

Where baits are planted, there is a requirement to inform the public but Mr Murphy said not enough had been done to warn him.  

People must be warned when poison baits have been put down.

Alternate options to 1080 were needed, he said.

“Seeing Jack die like that, I don’t even wish that on a fox or wild dog,” he said.  

But Mr Bromilow said 1080 baiting was the best bait option and was less cruel than it appeared. “It appears traumatic to humans, as the dog will start convulsing and vocalising, but the brain activity at this stage is actually very low.” 

He said the alternate bait option being promoted, PAPP, was more likely to harm native animals.

“PAPP’s lethal dosage is based on weight, not species. For a typical dog-size bait, anything under 30kg that eats it will die,” Mr Bromilow said.

“The reason 1080 is so effective in Australia is because some native plant species naturally contain the toxin. Native animals therefore have a greater tolerance than introduced species such as dogs and foxes.

“The toxicity levels in a 1080 dog bait will kill a dog outright but a quoll can eat two.”

RSPCA Australia said more research into more humane control methods was still necessary. 

“RSPCA has campaigned strongly for research into alternatives to 1080 poison for the control of pest animals so that it can be replaced with a more humane poison or, better still, for humane non-lethal methods to be developed and adopted,” the organisation said.

According to a DWELP spokesperson, the most effective way to manage wild dogs was a cooperative and coordinated approach on both public and private land.

They said this involved baiting, trapping, exclusion fencing and the use of guardian animals such as maremmas.

“Shooting is considered the most humane of all the currently available control tools as it results in the instantaneous loss of consciousness and death. Shooting is labour intensive though, and does not manage pests at a landscape level,” the spokesperson said.   

The DELWP spokesperson also said all control methods, including 1080 poison, had to comply with strict standards and, if used in accordance with regulations, were “effective and target-specific control tools”.

Maremma dogs are known to protect farm animals against attacks by foxes and wild dogs.

The scientific debate

Scientists also debate the question of whether 1080 is a viable control method for wild dogs. Some say the dogs experience the same amount of pain as humans who have eaten baits. Others say they are effectively anaesthetised and suffer very little.

In their 2010 journal article, Dr Laurie Twigg and Dr R Parker said the use of 1080 was ethical, as it was one of the only reliable ways to manage pest species effectively, which was necessary to protect other native and domestic animals.

They also said 1080 impaired neurological function and therefore reduced some pain receptors, but that it was hard to establish a baited animal’s level of pain.

However scientist Dr Miranda Sherley, who prepared two reports on the use of 1080 for the RSPCA, said wild dogs were potentially suffering pain similar to that felt by humans who had experienced 1080 poisoning.

“There is a strong overlap with the signs and symptoms in humans. Poisoned humans have reported painful muscle spasms, headache, stomach pain, anxiety, agitation, nausea and difficulty breathing,” she said.  

Deakin ecologist Dr Euan Ritchie who has been involved in wild dog and dingo-associated research for 10 years, said the poison was “not a nice way for an animal to die”, and there were alternatives.

“In pest control, animal welfare is not often given adequate consideration,” Dr Ritchie said.

“Research has shown maremmas [guardian dogs] can be very effective in protecting sheep against wild dog attack, including on really large properties.”