You might know a Tiger, a Tigger or a Mr. Whiskers. But how many cats are really living in the streets and sleeping on the couches of the District of Columbia?
By spending US$1.5 million over three years, a consortium of scientists and animal welfare organisations thinks it can find out with an initiative known as the DC Cat Count, which was launched today.
The cat census, organised by the Humane Rescue Alliance, the Humane Society of the United States, PetSmart Charities and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, will help animal advocates understand how many felines are in the city and how to cope with cats that don't have a home.
Lauren Lipsey, vice-president of community programmes for the Humane Rescue Alliance, which runs the District of Columbia's animal shelter, said the organisation wants "to better understand the cats in our community" to make sure all strays are finding homes.
"Pets born outside are never coming into contact with our services," she said.
"Our goal is to get a better picture of the state of the cat population in the D.C. area. Then we will be able to have more informed approaches as how we provide to our community."
Surveying a city to track one population of animals is no small undertaking. The project is planned to last three years, with the US$1.5 million price tag funded by animal advocacy non-profit groups.
Two full-time staffers and up to 50 cameras will be deployed on city blocks and in forested areas, such as Rock Creek Park. Felines also will be found by sending questionnaires to homes and by simply walking streets to track cats within a particular Zip code.
"Just walking around the neighbourhood counting cats, we were surprised at how few cats we've seen," she said. "Anecdotally, I'm kind of wondering if we have this idea in our head that there's this plethora of cats and might be surprised how few it actually is."
It's not clear how many stray cats are living in the city. Animal control officials keep the population down by trapping cats, then spaying and neutering them before they're released. But without a scientific approach to cat management, they are working in the dark, researchers said.
John Boone, a research director at Great Basin Bird Observatory in Reno, Nevada, who is working on the project, said animal groups are realising that mass sterilisation might not be the cheapest or most efficient approach to cat control.
"We're investigating - scientifically - the underlying dynamics of this system," he said. "We're not just counting the number of cats but trying to understand how they get there."
Cat communities can be controversial, Boone said. Some residents love them for their rat-killing prowess and congenital cuteness, but others loathe them for their cunning bird-killing abilities and the danger they can present to threatened species.
A cat count, Boone said, will make sure such arguments are based on facts and not "impressions, beliefs or anecdotal observations."
"Our hope is by demonstrating what's working and what's not . . . that debate can be transformed from one that's essentially vitriolic and not particularly productive," he said.