Sustainability inter-cat-nected?

WHO really parachuted cats into Borneo in the 1950s?

WHO really parachuted cats into Borneo in the 1950s?

One of my favourite stories in sustainability is ‘Operation Cat Drop’, which culminates in the parachuting of about 20 cats into the Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak [1, 2, 3].

Searching for the origins of this story online is quite entertaining because one encounters a clowder of cat videos and associated concern for animal welfare [4]. The story intersects many aspects of sustainability and environmental science (now including animal welfare with the advent of YouTube cat videos).

The informed version of the story tells us that the World Health Organisation’s anti-malarial team in Sarawak conducted ‘indoor residential spraying’ of DDT (yes, DDT) between 1952 and 1955. The spray successfully suppressed the human disease, but started a series of surprising consequences.

According to University of Iowa Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health, Patrick O’Shaughnessy [2]:

‘There was an increase in the rate of decay of the thatched roofs covering the long houses because a moth caterpillar that ingests the thatch avoided the DDT but their parasite, the larvae of a small wasp, did not. Also, the domestic cats roaming through the houses were poisoned by the DDT as a consequence of rubbing against the walls and then licking the insecticide off their fur. In some villages, the loss of cats allowed rats to enter, which raised concerns of rodent-related diseases such as typhus and the plague. To rectify this problem in one remote village, several dozen cats were collected in coastal towns and parachuted by the Royal Air Force in a special container to replace those killed by the insecticides.’

The verified version of the story doesn’t evoke the visual of skydiving cats wearing goggles, but it retained the intrigue.

O’Shaughnessy was concerned about the later addition of a detail that attributed the cat deaths to ‘bioaccumulation’ of DDT in cat prey. This he debunked, but why was it added to the apocryphal story?

O’Shaughnessy speculated that it was added by re-tellers inspired by publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring [5], which, as the title suggests, described a spring without birds due to the effects of DDT use. Silent Spring sparked the modern environmental movement, that led to the report by former Norwegian Prime Minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, that gave life to sustainability [6] (two women of seminal importance to environmentalism).

I still love the story even if it doesn’t demonise DDT. To me, it illustrates one of the essential elements of sustainability: interconnectedness. It also hints how the precautionary principle might have helped anticipate and avoid nasty surprises.

One of my first year textbooks [7] emphasised the importance of interconnectedness using the words of poet Francis Thompson [8]:

All things…
Near or far,
To each other link-ed are,
Thou canst not stir a flower
Without troubling of a star.

In practicing sustainability, we need to apply integrated thinking and methods to grasp and address interconnectedness [9, pp. 94-95]. This concerns interrelationships among organisms in the study of ecology as much as it does the interplay between dimensions of sustainability, such as hunger and inequity driving environmental destruction.

When we break-down sustainability into bunches of criteria to grapple with its complexity, like the ‘triple (or quadruple) bottom line’, we lose some of the crucial connections between criteria.

Integration is a kludgy word, but our efforts to conceptualise and comprehend the whole, and the interconnections among working parts of sustainability problems, will be rewarded with robust solutions that are lasting and bring multiple benefits.


[1]   P. T. O’Shaughnessy, “Parachuting Cats and Crushed Eggs – The Controversy Over the Use of DDT to Control Malaria,” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 98, no. 11, pp. 1940-1948, 2008.

[2]    P. T. O’Shaughnessy, “The Flying Cat Story or “Operation Cat Drop” – A History of this Often-told Tale,” circa 2008. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 23 November 2016].

[3]    J. Duncan, “The Kelabit Highlands – The Land Of Nowhere,” 14 March 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 23 November 2016].

[4]    J. Moos, “Skydiving cats cause uproar,” CNN, 2012 [Online]. Available:

[5]    R. L. Carson, Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

[6]    United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

[7]    G. T. Miller, Jr. and P. Armstrong, Living in the Environment, International ed., Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1982.

[8]    F. Thompson, “The Mistress of Vision,” in The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse, N. &. Lee, Ed., Oxford, The Carendon Press, 1917.

[9]    R. L. Smith, Elements of Ecology, Second ed., New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

[10] R. B. Gibson, S. Hassan, S. Holtz, J. Tansey and G. Whitelaw, Sustainability Assessment – Criteria and Processes, London: Earthscan, 2005.

2 Responses so far.

  1. Hosting says:

    Cat owners claim to be animal lovers and, if this is true, they need to step up for our native wildlife. Cats should also wear a collar with a bell, or, even better, a sonar beeper that produces high-pitched tones, which doesn’t bother cats, but alerts birds to their presence.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for your response. In this story, the cats’ predatory ability was central to rat control, to which bells would have been an impediment. However, it’s very true that domestic cats threaten Australian wildlife and we seem politically incapable of regulating dogs and cats in an equal way.