You have probably heard about the $1.5 million Washington DC project to count all the cats, namely domestic, feral and strays and those in shelters.
On this scale, it’ll be the first of its kind. It’s important because to the best of my knowledge Americans don’t know with reliable accuracy the number of feral cats living in the suburban wild in their country and domestic cat living with families. There are many estimates which are no doubt based on good studies but they are extrapolations; scaled up figures from local to national level.
Need To Know Numbers
In order to get a firm handle on the predation of wildlife by feral and outdoor cats it’s important to know the number of predators. I have always argued that estimates on predation by feral and outdoor cats on birds, mammals and reptiles can only be helpful (or unhelpful) estimates. For the first time, on the completion of the study, which will take about three years, it will be possible to begin an accurate assessment of the impact of feral cats on wildlife over a large area: Washington DC. This may help in assessing the impact nationally.
The headcount is being managed by a conglomerate of institutions namely: PetSmart Charities, the Humane Society, the Humane Rescue Alliance and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. I’ve always been sceptical about the Smithsonian because they have a strong interest in bird conservation. In the past they have published documents attacking outdoor cats. Perhaps this is a reason why they are involved in this project.
As the DC Cat Count webpage says, debates about whether domestic cats should be let outside or kept inside often become hostile and reflect a polarised attitude towards these two different ways of looking after domestic cats. Those against allowing cats to go outside are passionate about wildlife conservation (and/or dislike cats) and once again we have to return to that perennial argument: how bad is the impact of cats on wildlife?
The DC Cat Count also make the point that the cat population is an interconnected network of feral and stray cats living outdoors, domestic cats living indoors and outdoors and shelter cats which “often move into or out of the other population segments”. It is also composed of feral cat colonies managed by TNR volunteers. Some of these cats are adoptable and end up in shelters.
The cat count will use state-of-the-art camera traps. As far as I’m aware, camera traps are a very good way of measuring the presence of wild animals and are often used in counting for example the population of Bengal tigers in India.
In addition they are going to use household surveys to work out the size of the owned cat population in Washington DC. Further they will find out how much time these cats spend outside in comparison to inside the home.
They’ll be comparing the number of outdoor cats with those kept indoors using “simple transect surveys and colony inventories”.
Pass On Experience
Further, during the project they will be developing, testing and validating a set of practical and informative tools, protocols and guidelines. They can use the information learnt to pass it on to other organisations to improve them.