The Most Important Cat Study Ever Has Been Completed, And The Results Are In

The last decade has seen something of a renaissance in cat-related research, with insightful studies about feline behavior coming from researchers in the US and Japan.

On the other hand there’s been a glut of research into feline predatory impact and public policy, and the majority of those studies have been deeply flawed. They’re based on suspect data and tainted by the interests of people who are more interested in blaming cats for killing birds than they are in learning about the real impact of domestic felines on local wildlife.

Those studies have all taken extreme shortcuts — using data that was collected for entirely different studies, for example, or handing out questionnaires that at best lead to highly subjective and speculative “data” on how cats affect the environment.

Several widely-cited studies that put the blame on cats for the extirpation of bird species have relied on wild guesses about the cat population in the US, estimating there are between 20 million and 120 million free-roaming domestic cats in the country. If you’re wondering how scientists can offer meaningful conclusions about the impact of cats when even they admit they could be off by 100 million, you’re not alone.

No one had ever actually counted the number of cats in a location, much less come close to a real figure — until now.

When leaders in Washington, D.C., set out to tackle the feral cat problem in their city, they knew they couldn’t effectively deal with the problem unless they knew its scope. They turned to the University of Maryland for help, which led to the D.C. Cat Count, a three-year undertaking to get an accurate census with the help of interested groups like the Humane Society and the Smithsonian.

DC Cat Count
An image from one of 1,530 motion-activated cameras deployed for the D.C. Cat Count. Credit: D.C. Cat Count

The researchers approached each of their local shelters and rescues for data, then assembled a meticulous household survey to get a handle on how many pet cats live in the city, and how many have access to the outdoors.

Finally — and most critically — they used 1,530 motion-activated cameras, which took a combined 6 million photos in parks, alleys, public spaces, streets and outdoor areas of private residences. They also developed methods for filtering out multiple images of individual cats, as well as other wildlife. And to supplement the data, team members patrolled 337 miles of paths and roads in a “transect count” to verify camera-derived data and collect additional information, like changes in the way local cats move through neighborhoods.

DC Cat Count
A cat who looks a lot like the Budster was captured in this 2019 photo from a motion-activated camera with night vision. Credit: DC Cat Count

Now that all the data’s been collected and analyzed, the D.C. Cat Count finally has a figure: There are about 200,000 cats in the city, according to the study.

Of those, 98.5 percent — or some 197,000 kitties — are either pets or are under some form of human care and protection, whether they’re just fed by people or they’re given food, outdoor shelter and TNR.

“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,” Tyler Flockhart, a population ecologist who worked on the count, told DCist. “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 study represents the most complete and accurate census of the local cat population in any US city to date, and the team behind it is sharing its methods so other cities can conduct their own accurate counts. (They’ll also need money: While the D.C. Cat Count relied on help from volunteers and local non-profits it was still a huge project involving a large team of pros, and it cost the city $1.5 million.)

By doing things the hard way — and the right way — D.C. is also the first American city to make truly informed choices on how to manage its feline population. No matter what happens from here, one thing’s certain — the city’s leaders will be guided by accurate data and not creating policy based on ignorance and hysteria painting cats as furry little boogeymen.

DC Cat Count
Not all the photos captured images of cats, and not all the felines were little: In this 2019 night image, a bobcat wanders in front of a trail camera. Credit: DC Cat Count

 

Buddy’s Gate Crashing My Dreams

Buddy has a tendency to show up in my dreams, which I attribute to his relentless insistence on messing with me while I’m asleep, whether it’s yowling in my ear for breakfast, deciding my nose needs grooming or just burrowing into me with a soft “Mrrrrrp!”

Last night, however, was a doozy. I dreamt I was back in high school, but instead of being in class I was in the newsroom at my first-ever newspaper job, which somehow occupied the third floor of the school building. I excused myself to go have a smoke — which I don’t do anymore — and walked down to the first floor where Bud was waiting for me near the door leading outside.

To say I was alarmed to find him just hanging out unsupervised in my high school-slash-workplace would be an understatement.

“Bud!” I said. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I came here with you, remember?” Buddy answered, speaking as if it was the most natural thing in the world. “We took the Celica.”

I sighed.

“I can’t have you running around here where someone could snatch you,” I said. “You’re going back in the car until I’m done for the day.”

“No I’m not!”

“Yes you are!”

“Oh yeah?” Buddy asked. “Where’s the car?”

Celica
A black Celica just like the one I owned until it died one day on the highway en route to Long Island.

And that’s when my dream morphed into a recurring nightmare, which is that I’m walking through a parking lot and can’t find my car. (In this case the car I got at 19 years old, a black Celica hatchback that was all sleek looks and underwhelming engine power. I still miss that car!) In these dreams I start to panic, redouble my efforts, and realize the parking lot is so huge, so endless that I’m gonna need a lift, someone to drive me around so I can look for my car

Buddy smile
“I’m a little Buddy, short and sweet! Here are my clawses, here are my feet!”

Maybe I can ease my anxiety in future dreams by dispatching Buddy to look for the car, but in last night’s dream he was clearly responsible for moving it.

“Bud…” I said. “What’d you do with the car?”

Dreams have a way of making it seem perfectly reasonable that a 10-pound house cat can not only speak, but drive a car.

I was absolutely sure that little jerk had hidden my car! (And here’s the standard disclaimer for all new readers: “little jerk” is a term of endearment when it comes to Bud. I love the little guy, obviously.)

I know it was just a dream, but it’s probably not a bad idea to hide my keys from now on…

Bud’s Book Club: The Man-Eaters of Kumaon & The Game of Rat and Dragon

Welcome to the inaugural post of Buddy’s Book Club, where we’ll read stories about cats and stories involving cats!

We’re going to start things off easy with a classic short story of the cat canon, which is available for free online via Project Gutenberg, and a seminal book about big cats from a man whose name is indelibly linked with them.

The Game of Rat and Dragon (1954) by Cordwainer Smith

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Read it here for free from Project Gutenberg, a collaborative effort to create a digital archive of important cultural literary works that have fallen into the public domain. For those unfamiliar with Project Gutenberg, it’s completely above-board, legal and safe for your devices, and the story opens in plain HTML with illustrations included as image files. You can read the story in a browser or download it onto a reading device, tablet or phone.

The Game of Rat and Dragon first appeared, as so much short fiction of the era did, in a digest. Although Smith had penned it the year before, the story was published in Galaxy Science Fiction’s October 1955 issue and became an instant classic among cat-lovers and science fiction aficionados. (There is considerable overlap between the two, not surprisingly: Introverts whose imaginations run wild when they look to the stars tend to have many of the same personality traits as people who prefer the more sublime antics of cats.)

The Game of Rat and Dragon imagines a far future in which humanity has become a star-faring culture, meaning we’ve conquered interstellar flight and have begun to colonize planets in star systems other than our own.

There is, of course, a problem. The dark, lonely void between stars isn’t as empty as we thought it was, and is inhabited by invisible (to the human eye), inscrutable, inexorable entities eventually dubbed “dragons.”

When dragons attack they leave only death and insanity in their wake, putting the entire idea of interstellar travel at risk. Imagine if there was a not-insignificant chance of your passenger jet being attacked by impervious creatures every time you hopped on a plane. It wouldn’t be long before the entire air industry collapsed and the world suddenly became a much bigger place, with other continents unreachable by air.

Who can help humans with this problem? Cats, of course! To say more would be to spoil the fun. Meow!

Man-Eaters of Kumaon (1944) by Jim Corbett

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Available as an ebook for 99 cents from Barnes and Noble.

Jim Corbett was a sportsman, the son of a government official in the British Raj who was raised in India’s jungles and came to know them intimately. He’s best remembered as the fearless hunter who finally brought down the infamous Champawat tigress, who officially claimed 436 lives over a years-long rampage as a man-eater, and likely many more that went unrecorded.

To understand the gravity of Corbett’s accomplishments, it’s necessary to understand the effect of a man-eater on rural India. The people living in India’s tiny villages are subsistence farmers. If they don’t farm, they don’t eat.

But when a man-eater as dangerous as the Champawat tigress claims an area as its hunting grounds, everything grinds to a halt: Farmers refuse to tend their fields, villagers disappear behind locked doors, and a simple walk to a neighboring village becomes an impossibility unless escorted by a group of two dozen or more armed men. Even then it’s a risk, for as Corbett notes, when tigers become man-eaters they have no fear of humans and will kill people in broad daylight, even when they’re in groups.

And yet for all their power and predatory instincts, tigers are never deliberately cruel and don’t harm humans willingly. Tigers become man-eaters by unfortunate circumstance, usually due to negligence or stupidity on the part of humans.

The Champawat tigress, for example, was like any other big cat until a human hunter took aim and shot her in the mouth, destroying one lower canine completely and shattering another. The tiger could no longer take down her usual prey, or at least not without serious difficulty. At some point — perhaps after encountering the body of a person it did not kill — the tigress realized she could survive on human flesh.

If that hadn’t happened, those 436-plus souls wouldn’t have been lost, an entire region wouldn’t have been brought to its knees, and the tigress would have continued life as normal.

The vast majority of the time, tigers are content to let humans be.

“I think of the tens of thousands of men, women and children who, while working in the forests or cutting grass or collecting dry sticks, pass day after day close to where tigers are lying up and who, when they return safely to their homes, do not even know that they have been under the observation of this so called ‘cruel’ and ‘bloodthirsty’ animal,” Corbett writes.

Despite his reputation as the man to enlist when a man-eater terrorized a region, Corbett saw the way things were trending a century ago, and begged people to let the big cats live undisturbed.

“A tiger is a large-hearted gentleman with boundless courage,” he wrote, “and that when he is exterminated — as exterminated he will be unless public opinion rallies to his support — India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.”

Corbett would undoubtedly be deeply disturbed by the situation today, with only some 4,000 wild tigers remaining in the entire world, and the glorious species mostly reduced to spending life in captivity, constantly sedated so that idiots can pay to take selfies with them.

The Man-Eaters of Kumaon follows Corbett on 10 hunts of man-eating tigers and leopards. It’s also a story of life in the British Raj, rural life in India, Corbett’s jungle adventures, his love for his loyal hunting dog and his turn toward conservation.

Schedule:

We can do the short story in a week, yeah? Let’s shoot for one week for The Game of Rat and Dragon, and two weeks for The Man-Eaters of Kumaon. We’ll adjourn and discuss in follow-up posts. Happy reading!

Stray’s Feline Protagonist Is Picture Perfect

Determined to get inside an apartment, the ginger tabby leaps onto the ledge of an air conditioner unit, then onto the roof, where he drags a piece of debris to the edge, swipes it off and watches it shatter a skylight.

Boom. Kitty door created!

The scene isn’t part of a Youtube video or a documentary about smart cats, it’s a gameplay sequence from the upcoming Stray, a game in which the protagonist is a lost cat who’s been separated from his family and dropped into an eerie, near-future Hong Kong.

The overlap (or Reuleaux triangle) in a Venn diagram of gamers and cat-lovers is pretty sizable, and for that enthusiastic cross-section, there’s no game more highly anticipated than Stray.

Stray
Our hero gets his sustenance from bowls, needs to pause for a scratch every once in a while, and likes to rub against the legs of friendly characters he meets.

Previously we’d seen a short trailer and still screenshots, and now a video from the developers shows off more than four minutes of glorious game footage following the feline protagonist as he explores Hong Kong’s streets, back alleys and noodle shops.

The developers are clearly cat lovers: The kitty hero of Stray moves with the grace, energy and caution of a real domestic feline, and the game forces players to tackle obstacles and challenges the way a cat would. The protagonist cat gains access to a vent shaft, for example, by swiping a coffee mug into fan blades to get them to stop spinning. In another scene, the cat is startled, jumps a full pace back and lands on all fours in a way only cats can.

Everything from gait to reactions is perfectly cat-like. In the opening moments, our kitty hero is clearly injured, nursing one of his back legs as he hobbles down an alley. In a later scene he bats curiously at a drone the way a house cat would with a new toy.

There are no magic abilities or impossible inventories here: As the player, you can only do things a cat can do in real life, although you’re given a boost later on when a friendly character equips you with a harness on which B12, the above-mentioned drone, can dock. B12 can interact with man-made inventions, understand your cat’s intentions and facilitate rudimentary communication.

If, for example, your kitty character is dehydrated and stops to paw at a vending machine, B12 can send a signal to the machine, order it to dispense a beverage, then open it for the adventurous cat. B12 also helps your catagonist fight off enemies. By flashing a purple light at hostile machines, for example, the little drone can render them harmless and deactivate them.

Ultimately, though, the game designers want you to think in cat terms to make your way through the game world, and that means considering feline physiology when encountering obstacles, and feline psychology when trying to solve puzzles.

Stray
“A new toy?!” Stray’s hero cat is curious as he meets B-12 for the first time.

The project’s lead designers are both industry veterans who decided to strike out on their own by forming an independent studio after years of working for UbiSoft, the game industry giant known for game franchises like Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs. Like those games, Stray gives players the opportunity to explore a highly detailed open world.

“Our goal is to create a unique experience playing as a cat. We are inspired everyday by Murtaugh and Riggs, our two cats,” creative director Viv said. “Most of the team are cat owners as well, giving us all a lot of helpful first-hand references. Cats are always so playful, cute and lovingly annoying that it’s an endless stream of gameplay ideas for us.”

Stray_gameplay

For the game’s atmosphere, the creators were inspired by Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City, a former military fortress that became a slum in the days of British-ruled Hong Kong, with Chinese triad gangs serving as de facto authorities in the lawless zone. Today, the former Kowloon Walled City is a park.

“It is also a very unique point of view for an adventure game. Exploring the strange world we are building feels really fresh when you’re sneaking under a car, or walking the rooftops with the inhabitants below unaware of your presence. Or if you want them to be aware, you can just meow endlessly to annoy them.”

Stray was originally slated for a late 2021 release, but it’s looking more likely that we won’t see it until the first quarter of 2022. Given the recent history of highly anticipated and rushed projects like Cyberpunk 2077, few gamers would begrudge a development team taking its time and getting things right rather than going into a months-long crunch period to meet a holiday deadline. Good things come to those who wait, especially in the complex world of game development.

There Won’t Be A Cat In The White House Any Time Soon, Thanks To The Dog

First Lady Jill Biden generated hundreds of headlines late in 2020 and again earlier this year as she promised she and her husband would welcome a feline pet to the White House for the first time since the George W. Bush administration.

Since then we haven’t heard anything — until today’s edition of the New York Times, which includes the first sit-down interview with the First Lady since her husband took his oath of office back in January.

It turns out the Bidens did pick a cat, and that cat has been living with a foster family because the Bidens’ other family pet, Major the German Shepherd, has a bit of a biting problem.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki downplayed Major’s biting incidents, telling reporters he nipped White House staff twice, but emails obtained by the group Judicial Watch show Major’s biting isn’t so minor: In the first week of March, an internal Secret Service email said “an agent or officer has been bitten every day this week.” The dog also bit a visitor to the White House that same week, according to the email.

Since then there have been other incidents, and the pooch has been shuttled between the White House and Delaware, where he’s spent more time with trainers in an attempt to curb the bad behavior.

The president and First Lady didn’t want to subject their new cat to the stress of living with a bite-happy Husky, so the kitty remained in foster care. It seems the cat is now a “failed foster.”

“The cat is still being fostered with somebody who loves the cat,” Jill Biden told the Times. “I don’t even know whether I can get the cat back at this point.”

The Natural Order of Things
A brave and heroic cat executes a glorious karate kick to the face of a slobbering, clumsy dog, proving once again that felines are superior.

In related news, Buddy the Cat — whose track record of biting to get what he wants is second-to-none — volunteered himself to help solve Major’s behavioral issues.

“I’ll straighten him out right quick,” Buddy said, lifting a paw and flexing. “If my razor sharp claws, vicious fangs and intimidating size don’t deter him, my huge meowscles will. I guarantee he’ll want no part of this.”

Buddy the Cat: Handsome and Meowscular
Bud is not only smart and good looking, he also has huge meowscles and is known for his bravery