As the first morning visitors to the National Zoo stroll through the entrance, two field technicians with backpacks head in the opposite direction, over Rock Creek, across a parkway carrying commuters into downtown Washington, D.C., and up a steep, muddy hillside.
Leaving runners and dog walkers in the valley below, the two men follow a narrow path worn in the leaves. Dan Herrera, an urban ecologist, and Justin Belsley, a cat colony caregiver with experience in behavioral science research projects, consult a map on a tablet and search for their two motion-activated camera traps, one locked to the bottom of a fence, the other to the base of a tree a little farther on. First, they turn the devices off—until they do, the cameras will take five rapid shots at a time, and Herrera and Belsley, who both work for Humane Rescue Alliance in D.C., have grown tired of looking at multiple close-ups of their own faces. Then they remove the memory cards and quickly view the stored images to get an idea of what the cameras have captured.
The DC Cat Count was launched in 2018 by the HSUS, Humane Rescue Alliance and PetSmart Charities, along with Boone and Tyler Flockhart, a leading researcher on cat population dynamics. Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute staff, experts in using camera traps, lead the outdoor part of the study. Money for the project comes from PetSmart Charities, the ASPCA, Maddie’s Fund, Winn Feline Foundation, Beatrice von Gontard and Cat Depot.
Using all the pieces of the puzzle and statistical models, Flockhart aims to develop a way to show how various cat populations interact and how best to help owned cats, outdoor cats and cats in the shelter system. This will allow communities to take a more scientific approach to providing services for cat owners, humanely reducing outdoor cat pop-ulations and decreasing threats cats pose to birds and other wild animals. While the research is being done in D.C., lessons learned can be applied across the country.