Counting All Cats in Washington, DC

Feral cats eating scraps of food in Washington. Animal advocacy organizations are funding a large effort to count all the cats in the city.

The District of Columbia, like a lot of cities, has a cat dilemma. Stray and feral cats roam the streets of Washington, protected by neuter-and-release policies.

They prey on wildlife and carry diseases that are dangerous to humans, concerning conservationists. Their quality of life can be poor.

As cat populations continue to flourish, scientists and animal advocates are searching for the best and most responsible way to manage them. A new initiative called D.C. Cat Count might provide some answers. It is spending the next three years counting all the cats that live in Washington, and observing how they move around.

And you read that right — all the cats, including pets.

While other cities have embarked on smaller efforts to count segments of their cat populations, D.C. Cat Count, which started in July 2018, announced it aimed to count every cat in the nation’s capital, not just those living on the streets or in shelters but also all the rest, whether living indoors, outdoors or both.

“This is the first of its kind,” said Lauren Lipsey, vice president of community programs for the Humane Rescue Alliance. “We’ll be sampling the entire city.”

The $1.5 million project, which is being funded by animal advocacy groups, is a highly technological endeavor. As many as 60 camera traps, most aided by infrared sensors, will record images of outdoor cats. And a smartphone app, still in development, will allow anyone in Washington to share pictures of cats that they observe outside, or cats that they own, to build a library of as many cats as possible.

“The biggest concern is that we don’t know how many cats or what percentage of the population we’re helping, or what the true need is out there,” Ms. Lipsey said. “And our goal is to help them all, even if they are owned.”

The Humane Rescue Alliance, the organization that operates animal control in Washington and serves as the area’s sole animal-welfare group, is partnering with the Humane Society of the United States, PetSmart Charities and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to tally the capital’s cats.

The data will be analyzed by Tyler Flockhart, a conservation biologist and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science who has been studying cat populations for about four years.

“It’s a pretty bold undertaking, but an important one,” he said.

About 16,000 feral cats have been sterilized through the city’s trap-neuter-return program, which started in 2008. And each year about 2,000 to 3,000 cats are adopted, Ms. Lipsey said. Her organization has seen an increase in the number of cats that are unowned.

But nobody knows exactly how many cats are in Washington.

Cats are elusive, move quickly and excel at hiding. Those qualities make them difficult to observe.

“Cats are hard to see,” Mr. Flockhart said. “You see very few cats when you’re out walking around. And that’s because they’re secretive animals. When you see a cat, there is almost certainly more than one there.”

Knowing how many cats live in Washington is essential to developing policies to manage them, he added.

“Hopefully at the end of our study we have tools to do work in other cities,” he said.

In New York City, there are tens of thousands of stray and feral cats, referred to as “community cats,” that live outdoors and are not suitable for adoption because they have not been socialized to humans. New York manages this population by neutering the cats and returning them to their original locations. In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner last year signed legislation making it easier for counties to pay for trap-neuter-vaccinate-return programs for feral cats.

In Los Angeles County, where it is estimated that there are millions of stray and feral cats, some conservationists are fighting the neuter-and-release practice.

“No-kill simply moves the killing to other places,” Travis Longcore, science director at the Urban Wildlands Group, told Los Angeles Magazine last year. “Maybe you aren’t euthanizing that feral cat, but you are guaranteeing the death of lizards and birds and contamination of waterways with Toxoplasma gondii and adverse impacts to sea lions and seals.”

Cats not only carry diseases like rabies that can be spread to people, they have also contributed to at least 63 extinctions.

And cats are such a common sight that “we tend to forget that they don’t actually belong in our yards and parks,” Clare Nielsen, a spokeswoman for the American Bird Conservancy, said. “They are not part of our native wildlife, and they kill more birds than any other direct human-caused threat — more than two billion each year in the U.S.”

Gathering more data on cats will be helpful, she added: “The question is, how will the data be used? We’re hoping the effort will lead to an honest conversation about what sustainable solutions for D.C.’s homeless cats might look like.”

The debate over how best to control cat populations has been going on for a long time. Nearly a decade ago a publication from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln mentioned lethal methods as a way to manage feral cats, a suggestion that created an outcry at the time.

Washington can benefit from additional data that goes beyond what the Humane Rescue Alliance has gathered, Ms. Lipsey said.

“Up until now we’ve been basing our policies and activities fully on our data, which is very much independent of what actually might be going on out there,” she said. “We don’t know to what extent we’re reaching the cats in our community.”

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