Counting cats in Washington D.C. & how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall
WASHINGTON D.C.––For $1.5 million, one could catch, sterilize, and microchip all of the approximately 7,000 free-roaming, not-yet-fixed cats who may be at large in the 68.34 square miles of Washington D.C., at an average cost per cat of about $214.
The probable number of free-roaming cats in Washington D.C., coincidentally, is almost equal to the estimated 6,900 homeless humans, who tend to favor the same sorts of habitat, even if homeless humans rarely eat mice. In D.C., both homeless humans and free-roaming cats have an apparent population density of just over 100 per square mile.
Alternatively, one could spend $1.5 million counting each and every cat in Washington D.C., all 70,000-odd of them, both indoors and out, owned and feral, entering photos of as many cats as possible into an electronic archive.
The latter is the option embarked upon in mid-July 2018 by the Humane Society of the U.S., PetSmart Charities, Maddie’s Fund, the Winn Feline Foundation, and the Humane Rescue Alliance, which holds the Washington D.C. animal control contract.
Also kibitzing over the data will be the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which has put up none of the funding, but is an arm of an institution whose spokespersons have often called for exterminating outdoor cats, beginning at least as early as 1910.
In May 2011 the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute applied for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service funding for a study of cat predation on birds which was to have been done by staff researchers Peter Marra and Nico Dauphiné.
Marra, still a Smithsonian senior scientist, has prominently “estimated” cat predation on birds by projecting that the U.S. cat population is nearly twice as high as any actual census has ever found. Marra and three colleagues published yet another reiteration, amplification, and defense of his claims on July 4, 2018, even as the DC Cat Count got underway.
Dauphiné, two weeks before the grant application was filed, was arrested for allegedly trying to poison cats. Convicted of misdemeanor attempted cruelty, Dauphine was on December 14, 2011 sentenced to do 120 hours of community service, spend a year on probation, and pay a fine of $100, with 180 days in jail suspended.
Prince Albert Hall
“Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall,” songwriter John Lennon observed of apparently useless research in “A Day in the Life” (1967), but in fairness to the DC Cat Count partners, many studies that seem to serve no useful purpose do eventually have some practical value.
The rationale for the DC Cat Count, explains the project web site, is that “Debates about outdoor cat policy are rarely productive and are often confrontational. This is in part because there are no broadly-accepted or objective criteria for estimating cat population size or evaluating the impacts of population management efforts.”
This argument parallels statements made often since 1991 by Humane Society of the U.S. chief scientific officer Andrew Rowan, beginning when he was director of the Center for Animals & Public Policy at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Rowan in his former capacity as president of Humane Society International, the global arm of HSUS, mentored attorney Kitty Block. Block in 2017 succeeded Rowan as Humane Society International president. Block was elevated to the HSUS presidency in February 2018, following the resignation of former HSUS president Wayne Pacelle amid public allegations that he had sexually harassed female subordinates.
That the DC Cat Count is now proceeding, as apparently the most expensive survey of an animal issue that HSUS has ever helped to fund, may be a measure of Rowan’s current influence within HSUS and with the other funders.
No lack of “objective criteria”
But that “there are no broadly-accepted” criteria for “estimating cat population size or evaluating the impacts of population management efforts” does not proceed from any lack of “objective criteria.”
In truth, the same methods and criteria used to assess other animal populations have been used to assess U.S. cat populations for at least 110 years, improving with advances in demographic science.
A variety of studies using common demographic approaches, focusing on outdoor pet and feral cats, have over the decades produced remarkably consistent estimates.
Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History produced the first serious estimate in 1908, putting the total outdoor cat population at circa 25 million.
National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull conducted three exhaustive studies, published under the pseudonym “John Marbanks,” to put the U.S. population of cats at large at circa 10 million in 1927, 20 million in 1937, and 30 million in 1950.
ANIMALS 24-7 found in national surveys of cat feeders and rescuers, done in 1992 and 1996, that the combined outdoor pet and feral cat population probably peaked circa 1991 at about 46 million, and, following the introduction of neuter/return cat population control, fell rapidly thereafter.
Confirming that finding, animal shelter data separately gathered by ANIMALS 24-7 and the National Council on Pet Population Study showed a 75% decline in cat intake from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s.
Simultaneously, both the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Pet Product Association have produced periodic surveys of cat ownership, focusing on numbers of cats taken for veterinary care and cats fed.
The consistently lower AVMA findings amount to “cats for whom someone takes full responsibility,” as opposed to “cats who are only fed and allowed to roam.” The difference has ranged from about a sixth of the higher estimate of total cat population in earlier surveys to about 10% most recently.
ANIMALS 24-7 estimated from 2003 through 2014, looking annually at the combination of available data sources, including animal shelter admissions, predation studies, and roadkill counts, that the midsummer peak of the feral cat population was steady at less than 13 million, the winter low is just over six million, and the year-round average is about nine million.
Most recent data
Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine graduate student Anne Fleming, at a December 2012 conference on outdoor cats hosted in Los Angeles by HSUS, presented data from surveying 263 feral cat colonies in Rhode Island which projected a national feral cat population of 8.8 million.
Alley Cat Rescue, in the largest-ever national survey of feral cat colony caretakers, found in 2017 that neuter/return feral cat population control appears to have reduced the feral cat birth rate by 72% since 1992.
Five studies done in Southern California between 1998 and 2018 meanwhile found that cat consumption by coyotes has apparently fallen 68%, suggesting that markedly fewer cats are outdoors and at large.
Why not “broadly accepted”?
This mountain of cat population data has never been “broadly accepted” chiefly through the enduring influence of 19th and early 20th century Massachusetts state ornithologist Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929), whose inveterate hatred of cats was based largely on his own scientific ineptitude.
Among other conspicuous errors, Forbush wrongly blamed cats who were never there in the first place for the decline of roseate terns on Muskeget Island, later established to have been caused by gull predation; conflated the Quebecois slang term for raccoons, chat sauvage, and descriptions of raccoon behavior, with second hand anecdotal accounts of cat behavior; and conflated bobcats with domestic cats.
The 1916 Forbush tract The Domestic Cat: Bird Killer, Mouser & Destroyer of Wild Life; Means of Utilizing and Controlling It, nonetheless furnished the quasi-scientific basis for more than half a century of concerted efforts by hunters and birders to add cats to state lists of legally hunted species. It continues to be the unacknowledged template for the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, and American Bird Conservancy policies of opposition to neuter/return feral cat control.
DC Cat Count seeks reconciliation
Birders decrying cat depredation and hunters clamoring for an open season on cats, led by Forbush, responded to the first “John Marbanks” study in 1927––without conducting any actual cat population research themselves––by insisting that the cat population at large was closer to 80 million.
Continuing that tradition of exaggeration, American Bird Conservancy founder and president George Fenwick claimed in December 2014 that “The number of domestic cats in the U.S.—both owned and un-owned—has increased to as many as 188 million.”
The DC Cat Count appears to be including input from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in hopes of somehow reconciling the inflated figures with reality, to the satisfaction of all concerned.
Cat numbers inflated by cat advocates, too
Indeed, cat numbers far exceeding the findings from any actual field studies have also been thrown about for decades by HSUS, Maddie’s Fund, and cat advocacy groups, apparently in the misguided belief that claiming larger numbers of cats are at large, and in need of help, will attract more donations and media notice.
The actual effect has been to help establish a widely held belief that the U.S. cat population is increasing, especially the feral cat population, when the weight of evidence is that both the owned and feral cat populations have declined.
For example, the AVMA U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographic Sourcebook, 2012 edition, reported that 6% fewer Americans were keeping cats than five years earlier. Even more significantly, the AVMA survey found that those Americans who keep cats are now keeping 18% fewer cats than five years earlier, when the pet cat population peaked.
Tools & approaches
The DC Cat Count web site acknowledges that “Wildlife scientists have developed tools and approaches that are suitable” for estimating outdoor cat populations,” but argues that “they need to be adapted for use in studying cats, validated, and streamlined to allow their routine use by groups interested in achieving better cat population management outcomes.”
Again echoing past statements by Rowan, “The DC Cat Count project recognizes that, although outdoor cats are the focus of current controversies, the cat population in any area is actually an interconnected and dynamic network comprised of unowned cats living outdoors, owned cats who may live either indoors or outdoors, and shelter cats who often move into or out of the other population segments. Therefore, the project is composed of several distinct, but complementary, components designed to characterize all of these population segments and how they interact with one another.”
These components include “A state-of-the-art camera trapping effort.”
Elaborated New York Times reporter Christina Caron, “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.”
Unclear is how the DC Cat Count intends to exclude the possibility of anti-cat birders photographing cats elsewhere, then uploading the photos from sites within Washington D.C. so as to confound identification of the photos by GPS coordinates and thereby inflate the numbers to suggest that neuter/return cat population control is failing.
The DC Cat Count also intends to use household surveys, the approach pioneered by Howard and Clara Trumbull, “to estimate the size of the owned cat population,” as the Trumbulls did, “and to determine how much time owned cats spend outdoors versus indoors,” as several other studies have done at intervals much more recently.
The DC Cat Count is further to include “An analysis of the shelter cat population, including all intake and outflow rates.” This has often been done by other projects in other cities over the past 25 years, including ANIMALS 24-7 in annual surveys from 1993 to 2014, and since 2005 by the Asilomar Accords project sponsored by Maddie’s Fund.
Perhaps the most useful component of the DC Cat Count is to be “A count of outdoor cats using simple transect surveys and colony inventories,” the traditional approaches, combined with “a comparison of these results with the outdoor cat estimates obtained using more intensive camera trapping.”
This sort of work has already been done for decades in venues around the world to evaluate the accuracy of wildlife counts. Usually the camera traps have discovered animals, including endangered species, who have managed to elude other surveys. In India, however, the use of camera traps has established that estimates of the tiger population based on tracks and actual sightings have tended to be on the high side, partly because individual tigers range farther than was previously believed.
DC Cat Count goals include “The creation of a statistical model that describes the interactions between cat population segments and helps to identify the most effective intervention points and population management strategies,” and “The development, testing, and validation of a set of practical and informative tools, protocols, and guidelines that can help other organizations’ ‘count cats’ and improve their mission effectiveness.”
The data analysis, says the DC Cat Count web site, “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.”
Flockhart began in 2015 by radio-collaring 32 feral cats in Toronto and Guelph, Ontario, Canada, as a post-doctoral fellow in wildlife ecology at the University of Guelph.
Flockhart concluded from that study and from traditional line transect cat counting that there are about 8,000 to 10,000 outdoor cats in Guelph, a city of about 129,000 people.
Guelph compared to California
That would be about one cat for every 13 to 16 people, or about as many cats at large in Guelph as were found in professionally conducted household surveys directed by National Pet Alliance founder Karen Johnson in San Jose and San Diego, California, in 1992 and 1996, respectively.
Johnson learned that––before the introduction of neuter/return cat population control––about one household in 10 fed outdoor cats. The average household size was about three people, and the average number of cats fed was about two, implying a ratio of about one cat per 15 people.
The Johnson studies do not appear to have been replicated, but since the number of cats at large appears to have fallen by 70% to 90%, according to roadkill, predation, and shelter intake data, the number of households feeding outdoor cats is now likely to be far lower.
“Cats & wildlife will both ultimately benefit”
“At the conclusion of this project in June 2021,” says the DC Cat Count web site, “we will have estimated the number of all cats within Washington, D.C.,” along with developing “logistically feasible and scientifically sound tools and protocols that can be used by a wide variety of animal welfare or municipal organizations to facilitate data-driven cat population management.
“As a result,” the DC Cat Count web site concludes, “we anticipate that cat population management efforts will be more effective, that discussions about cat policy will be more productive, and that cats and wildlife will both ultimately benefit from these improvements.”
“Not so fast,” says Alley Cat Allies
That does not satisfy Alley Cat Allies president and founder Becky Robinson.
Robinson, with Louise Holton, who later founded the Maryland organization Alley Cat Rescue, introduced the neuter/return technique to Washington D.C. and surrounding suburbs in 1990.
Data collected by then-Calvert Animal Rescue League executive director Phil Arkow showed that in 1992 Maryland shelters killed 85,600 homeless cats.
Within five years the Maryland shelter cat death toll dropped to 58,000. By 2000 it was down to circa 30,000. It is now believed to be substantially less than that.
Ironically, one of the first possible effects of the abrupt decline in the numbers of cats at large in the Washington D.C. area, especially in Maryland, was an explosion of the disease Mycoplasma gallisepticum around local bird feeders––possibly because cats were no longer killing sick birds before they could spread the infection.
To that point Mycoplasma gallisepticum had been most closely identified with outbreaks on factory-style turkey farms, which had arrived in the area 10-20 years earlier.
Between the early 1990s and the mid-2000s, Mycoplasma gallisepticum spread up and down the east coast and across the U.S. as a bird feeder disease, with each major outbreak following several years after the debut of big neuter/return programs in the vicinity.
“We do not support the DC Cat Count”
Said Robinson, in a written position statement, “We have longstanding positive relationships with these organizations,” meaning DC Cat Count participants HSUS, PetSmart Charities, Maddie’s Fund, the Winn Feline Foundation, and the Humane Rescue Alliance.
“However, we do not support the DC Cat Count project,” Robinson said. “Further, we are asking for assurance from them about the ethical cornerstones of the DC Cat Count.
“We have worked with these groups across time, count them as trusted colleagues and share many of the same values,” Robinson stipulated. “But given the importance of this issue – a matter of life and death – it is important to seek public confirmation of their opposition to lethal cat population management.
“Humanely” does not go far enough
“We are strong supporters of well-executed research, innovation, and efforts to improve the lives and welfare of cats, wildlife and all animals,” Robinson continued. “We align closely with the compassionate conservation movement.
“We were pleased to read that the groups involved in the DC Cat Count have stated that they are committed to managing cat populations humanely, but that statement does not go far enough. There are people who believe that killing cats who live outside is more humane than letting them live. We at Alley Cat Allies could not disagree more strongly,” Robinson emphasized.
“On behalf of our supporters and cat lovers everywhere, we ask the groups to clarify that they do not believe that killing outdoor cats has any part in humane cat population management,” Robinson said. “We and our supporters need to hear from those funding and running the DC Cat Count that lethal cat management measures will not be considered as viable options in this project, in linked cat population modeling efforts, or in recommendations resulting from this work.”
“Threatens credibility of the project”
Robinson expressed particular concern about comments made to the Washington Post by DC Cat Count scientific advisor John Boone, who “called into question – well ahead of any results from the project – the efficacy of large scale cat sterilization efforts. Sterilization is the leading non–lethal approach to cat population management in the United States,” Robinson reminded. “Such remarks from one of the project leaders threatens the very credibility of the project from its onset.”
Alley Cat Rescue president Louise Holton suggested to ANIMALS 24-7 that the money invested in the DC Cat Count would be better spent sterilizing cats, to eliminate the perceived problem instead of just studying it.
“A formula already exists”
Blogged Ed Boks, formerly director of the animal control shelters serving New York City, Los Angeles, and Maricopa and Yavapai counties in Arizona, “It may not be necessary to spend $1.5 million dollars over three-years to determine Washington’s cat population. Unbeknownst by many in animal welfare, a formula for determining feral cat populations already exists.”
Boks went on to recite word-for-word a formula originally published by ANIMALS 24-7 in July 2005 and May 2006, based on findings from a 1996 survey of 7,399 U.S. households, the results from which were reported in 2005 in volume 7.4 of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
The 1996 survey found a crude birth rate of about 11.2 kittens and an attrition/death rate of 11.3 cats per 100 cats in households – meaning cat births in households at that time nearly equaled attrition.
The 1996 survey also found that the number of feral and stray cats moving into homes and shelters, again at that time, was approximately equal to the net growth in the household cat population plus the number of cats killed in shelters.
Why the formula may no longer work
What that meant was that, at least in the 1996-2005 time frame, the number of feral and stray cats in a community could be estimated by adding the net number of cats entering homes through adoption to the number of cats killed in shelters, and the multiplying that number by three (to account for the one queen, one tom, and at least one sibling not entering homes or shelters who must exist to produce the known feral/stray cat population).
That formula is probably no longer accurate. Unknown is whether cat births in homes and attrition are still nearly equal. Increased use of neuter/return, meaning that cats neither enter homes nor are killed in shelters, and that many cats at large now have been sterilized, and are therefore not part of the breeding population, might require updating the equation.
Many ways to get the numbers
But information from whatever other numbers are available for any given community can still be used to get an estimate of the cats-at-large population accurate enough to plan a sterilization campaign capable of steeply reducing it.
Just the cat population data available from The AVMA U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographic Sourcebook, 2012 edition, scaled to account for human population change and to reflect the balance of owned to feral cats implied in other recent data, suggests that the current Washington D.C. cat population is about 63,000 owned, 7,000 feral, 70,000 total.
We will be quite surprised if the DC Cat Count produces findings significantly different.