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Not trying to be catty but here’s a $1.5M project that’s for the birds
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

I do not have a cat as a pet.

Yet almost every time I go outside into my front yard I’ll see a cat.

I do not wonder about how many wild birds in this country are killed by domestic cats. Nor do I care how many cats are wandering around.

And I certainly don’t think it is a pressing matter that needs studying.

But then again I’m not a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. They’ve been commissioned to do a scientific cat tally in Washington, D.C.

Dubbed the D.C. Cat Count — I’m trying to resist making a joke about the 1965 Disney movie “That Darn Cat!” where the Siamese cat lead was called “D.C.” — it is costing $1.5 million to conduct over 3.5 years. It is being funded by PetSmart Charities along with several other animal welfare organizations.

Why spend $1.5 million to count cats in the nation’s capital?

It is to supposedly bring clarity to a debate that feline defenders and bird lovers view as a bigger life and death matter than mayhem on our highways. They are some friends of the feathered as well as of wildlife in general that `believe domestic outdoor cats — strays and those kept as pets — are killing off small mammals and birds at an alarming rate and should have their numbers culled. Defenders of cats think that line of thinking is for the birds, literally and figuratively.

Stroking the debate was the release six years ago of an estimate by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish & Wildfire Service that 22.3 billion small mammals and up to 4 billion birds are killed annually in this country by outdoor cats.

The 2013 study was panned by cat fans. The scientists fired back. Even though they tried to defend their study the question of exactly how many cats exist in this country — let alone the exact number of feline kills — came up.

The D.C. Cat Count is designed to answer the cat population question.

How, you might ask, do you do a census of animals that are as hard to herd as cats are?

The answer is you don’t. Instead you do a sampling and extrapolate numbers from the data you glean.

So, a bunch of researchers paid with $1.5 million in grants are going to spend 42 months cat count sampling.

They’ve divided the federal district into 130 sampling areas with various human population densities. Each sampling area is 800 by 800 meters. They will tackle three blocks at a time. Each of those three sampling blocks will have 20 motion sensor cameras placed in them for a month.

Every cat apparently is like a snowflake in that no two have the same exact fur pattern. That is how researchers are going to count cats. They will shift through pictures taken daily over a 30-day period inspecting fur patterns. The first day they will ID how many different cats appeared on candid camera. They will compare those with the second day of cat glamour shots and count those they determine by fur aren’t repeats. The process is repeated day after day for 30 days.

Researchers will also survey residents in the sample areas to get a handle on how many cats they own.

They will use the research to come up with an estimate of cat population for a survey area of specific characteristics. It will lead to a research-backed estimate of how many indoor and outdoor cats there are in the District of Columbia.

This will supposedly allow for a civil discussion of how many birds and small mammals cats are killing.

But what about a similar count of dead birds and dead small mammals killed by the cats in the survey areas?

The study may find there are a gad-zillion cats in DC but how bad is that in terms of the survivability of birds and small mammals if we don’t have a corresponding body count arrived at scientifically?

Then there is the question no one can answer: Besides fueling further debate that will be based on a scientifically estimated cat count in one city what is the end game?

How do you cap or reduce the cat population? Better yet how do you determine what number you don’t want to drop below so rodent populations don’t explode to create a public health problem?

And what if having fewer cats on the hunt triggers an increase in the population of birds that have been known to cause human health issues with excessive bird droppings?

Devoting resources to collect data makes absolutely no sense if there aren’t some viable uses for it unless it is just to escalate a cat fight.