There Are Roughly 200,000 Cats In The District. Yes, Someone Counted 200,000 cats roam the alleys, backyards, and bedrooms of Washington, D.C., according to preliminary results from the District's first cat census.
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There Are Roughly 200,000 Cats In The District. Yes, Someone Counted

D.C. has two feline residents for every seven human residents. D.C. Cat Count/ hide caption

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D.C. Cat Count/

The D.C. Cat Count — apparently the first cat census of a large U.S. city — has wrapped up three years of arduous cat counting and released preliminary results. "The methods that we used are really robust and are of very high scientific standards," says Flockhart. Final results are pending peer review.

Preliminary cat census data show that the vast majority of D.C. cats are owned ("owned") or cared for by humans. Only about 3,000 are feral, navigating the city without human helpers.

Of those cats who have owners, or rather, who have humans who think they own them, roughly half are indoor only, and half have at least some outdoor access.

There are roughly 100,000 cats with access to the outdoors. D.C. Cat Count/ hide caption

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D.C. Cat Count/

The census also revealed different patterns of cat ownership across this city. "There's fewer outdoor cats in wealthier neighborhoods and there's more outdoor cats in neighborhoods with lower socioeconomic status," says Flockhart.

Cat ownership also varies across age groups of humans: the highest rate is among people in their 40s. (This reporter, as a 42-year-old owner of three cats, can provide anecdotal evidence to support this.)

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The cat count was launched in 2018, a collaboration that brought together groups on opposite sides of a sometimes-heated debate about the impact domestic cats — a nonnative species — have on native wildlife. One controversial study estimates domestic cats kill between 1.3 and 4 billion birds a year in the United States.

Cats — cute, furry, cuddly cats — have been called the "most ubiquitous and environmentally damaging invasive predators on Earth."

A kitten on a mission. D.C. Cat Count/ hide caption

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D.C. Cat Count/

To count D.C.'s felines, the Humane Rescue Alliance, which operates programs to support feral cats in the city, teamed up with researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, which works to protect native wildlife from extinction.

"These are groups that typically have been thought of as sort of butting heads," says Flockhart. "But we brought people together with the common goal of understanding how many cats are in the District and where those cats occur."

Flockhart says while the two groups might disagree about how to manage outdoor cats, both groups benefit from better cat data.

To count Washington's cats, researchers placed motion-triggered wildlife cameras in 1,530 locations, strategically sited across the city. Each location was surveilled for 15 days, for a total of 22,950 days of observation.

The results: roughly 1.2 million photos of cats. Cats hunting. Cats eating. Cats staring knowingly into the camera.

In addition, there were another 4 million photos captured featuring all sorts of wildlife. The project even documented the first-known sighting of a bobcat in the District in modern times.

The most common animal captured by the cat-counting cameras? Dogs.

There were also squirrels, deer, rats, raccoons, as well as the occasional flying squirrels, coyotes and beavers.

The team finished collecting data late last year, and has spent months going through photos, and analyzing the data to come up with the population estimate.

This cat wants to be counted. D.C. Cat Count/ hide caption

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D.C. Cat Count/

"Some people may look at our estimate and say, oh, well, you know, you're not 100% certain that it's exactly 200,000 cats," says Flockhart. "But what we can say is that we are very confident that the number of cats is about 200,000 in Washington, D.C."

The project wasn't cheap — $1.5 million — and it took a while. But the team created an open-source cat-counting toolkit to help other cities replicate the project more easily.

As for domestic cats' impact on local ecosystems? More research needs to be done, but the census does provide some clues.

Outdoor cats were more common in more densely populated neighborhoods, 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.

This cat wants the final word. D.C. Cat Count/ hide caption

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D.C. Cat Count/

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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