Birder claims about feral cats hugely exaggerated
WASHINGTON D.C.––Three years & expenditure of $1.5 million after it started, the D.C. Cat Count results are in, if not yet formally published in scientific media.
The D.C. Cat Count findings demonstrate chiefly what ANIMALS 24-7 has argued for decades: both birder and cat advocacy organization claims about the numbers of feral cats at large have long been hugely exaggerated.
ANIMALS 24-7 also turns out to have significantly over-estimated the Washington D.C. feral cat population, while under-estimating the numbers of owned cats, but came much closer to getting the total cat numbers right than any of the guesstimates offered by advocacy organizations.
200,000 pet cats in D.C., but only 3,000 ferals
D.C. Cat Count data released to news media and the public on September 16, 2021 put the total Washington D.C. cat population at about 200,000.
Of those cats, about 100,000 live indoors only. About 100,000 more cats are owned pets, with some outdoor access.
Just 3,000 cats are feral, living without humans providing them with regular meals and shelter.
Projecting data from any one city to the whole of a nation is inherently problematic, but in terms of climate variables, abundance of native urban wildlife, access to green space, and balance of residential versus non-residential development, Washington D.C. is actually about as representative of the whole of the U.S. as any big city could be.
Data projects 95 million pet cats nationally
With those considerations in mind, the finding of 200,000 pet cats residing among the 692,000 humans inhabiting Washington D.C. projects a national total of about 95 million, consistent with periodic estimates published by the American Pet Product Association, based on data pertaining to numbers of cats fed.
American Veterinary Medical Association estimates issued every five years, based on cats seen by veterinarians, tend to run 10% to 15% lower. The difference appears to be indicative of the number of outdoor cats who are fed by someone, but are not spayed or neutered.
The D.C. Cat Count finding of 3,000 bona fide feral cats in Washington D.C. projects to 1.4 million feral cats nationally.
Lots of cats in condos
ANIMALS 24-7, before the D.C. Cat Count began, estimated that the Washington D.C. feral cat population might be as large as 7,000, while the pet cat population might be as low as 70,000, based on high projected human residency in “no pets” condominiums.
The D.C. Cat Count data indicates that far more Washington D.C. residents keep cats, despite living in condominiums, than ANIMALS 24-7 suspected.
ANIMALS 24-7 also 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 U.S. national feral cat population was steady at less than 13 million; the winter low was also steady at just over six million; and the year-round average was about nine million.
Data collected by Alley Cat Rescue, of Mount Rainier, Maryland, has suggested a significant decline in the feral cat population since then, but the projection from D.C. Cat Count data is easily the lowest yet.
American Bird Conservancy claim was twice too high
In particular, the D.C. Cat Count findings confirm that American Bird Conservancy founder and president George Fenwick had no idea what he was talking about when he 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.”
This would be nearly twice as many cats as the D.C. Cat Count data suggests might exist in the U.S.
Billed as the first formal scientific cat census of any major U.S. city, the D.C. Cat Count estimated the numbers of truly feral cats and free-roaming pet cats with data gathered by motion-triggered wildlife cameras set up in 1,530 locations around Washington D.C.
Each camera site was monitored for 15 days, producing a total of 1.2 million photographs of cats, collected over 22,950 days of observation.
“Methods we used are of very high scientific standards”
“The methods that we used are really robust and are of very high scientific standards,” said University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science population ecologist Tyler Flockhart.
“There are fewer outdoor cats in wealthier neighborhoods and more outdoor cats in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status,” Flockhart told media, confirming what ANIMALS 24-7 found, and reported, in surveys of cat-feeders and neuter/return feral cat control practitioners done as early as 1992.
The D.C. Cat Count collected more than three times as many wildlife camera images of wildlife––four million in all––as of cats, including the first-known sighting of a bobcat in Washington D.C. since the city was developed.
“Limited impact on wildlife”
“Outdoor cats were more common in more densely populated neighborhoods,” observed Jacob Fenston for the DCist, “and they were rare in large parks like Rock Creek. This could suggest a more limited impact on wildlife, if cats are concentrated in the areas least likely to support large populations of native birds and mammals.”
Flockhart directed the D.C. Cat Count. Funding the project were 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.
Input also came from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which put up none of the money for the D.C. Cat Count, but is an arm of an institution whose spokespersons have often called for exterminating outdoor cats, beginning at least as early as 1910.
Will Smithsonian eat exaggerated claims about cat predation?
Most notoriously, 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, formerly director of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and now at Georgetown University, has prominently “estimated” cat predation on birds by projecting––as did Fenwick––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.
Now known as Nico Arcilla, the former Nico Dauphiné now heads International Bird Conservation Partners, in Monterey, California.
Frank M. Chapman of the American Museum of Natural History produced the first serious estimate of the U.S. cat population in 1908, putting it at about 25 million, practically all of them living mostly outdoors.
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.
There was still no significant indoor cat population as of 1950, but the 1946 introduction of granulated clay cat litter had begun to change that.
Outdoor cat population peaked circa 1991
Within another thirty years, both the American Pet Product Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association surveys found consistently that half or more of all cats were, and are, indoor pets, just as the D.C. Cat Count confirmed.
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.
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 findings
Alley Cat Rescue, in what was then the largest-ever national survey of feral cat colony caretakers, found in 2017 that neuter/return feral cat population control appeared to have reduced the feral cat birth rate by 72% since 1992.
The even larger 2019 Alley Cat Rescue survey found a 77% drop, meaning that neuter/return practitioners were continuing to improve their ability to respond quickly enough to the arrival of female cats to prevent births.
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.
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