Washington, D.C., is engaged in an expensive and tricky project that has absolutely nothing to do with Congress.

Instead, a coalition of animal welfare organizations and researchers are working together to count all the cats in the U.S. capital. (And you thought herding cats was hard.)

Cat census

PetSmart Charities, the Humane Society, the Humane Rescue Alliance and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute are collaborating to conduct the DC Cat Count. The project, which is expected to take three years and cost $1.5 million, wants to count every cat in D.C. — including indoor pets as well as feral, free-roaming and sheltered animals.

The Cat Count, launched last week, will use 60 camera traps, many aided by infrared sensors, to track and record the movements of outdoor cats. Meanwhile, an app is in development for D.C. residents to snap photos of cats they see while out and about in addition to the cats they care for at home.

While it may seem odd to account for the presence of every cat in the city instead of just the unowned outdoors cats, the Cat Count website argues that the entire population is "actually an interconnected and dynamic network comprised of unowned cats living outdoors, owned cats that may live either indoors or outdoors, and shelter cats that often move into or out of other population segments.

"Therefore, the project is composed of several distinct, but complementary, components designed to characterize all of these population segments and how they interact with one another."

A gray cat sits in a park in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Unhomed cats are difficult to count, but they still need help from animal welfare organizations. (Photo: Nicole S Glass/Shutterstock)

Given the different organizations involved, the goals of the census are varied, but all parties want to figure out a way to help the cats and the city coexist.

"The biggest concern is that we don't know how many cats or what percentage of the population we're helping, or what the true need is out there," Lauren Lipsey, vice president of community programs for the Humane Rescue Alliance, told The New York Times. "And our goal is to help them all, even if they are owned."

Another aim is to get a firm understanding how out the stray cat population functions, not just how many of them there are. Animal welfare agencies regularly capture, spay or neuter and then return cats to the pick-up location. According to John Boone, a research director at Great Basin Bird Observatory in Reno, Nevada, who is working on the project, this process may not be the most efficient or cost-effective.

"We're investigating — scientifically — the underlying dynamics of this system," he told The Washington Post. "We're not just counting the number of cats but trying to understand how they get there."

A place in the city

Armed with a precise count and a better understanding of cats' movements, the Cat Count's information will then be used in policy discussions regarding managing wild cat population in cities. Some communities value cats as rat-deterrents, while others consider them threats to a city's bird population and a public health problem due to their ability to spread Toxoplasma gondii.

"We tend to forget that they don't actually belong in our yards and parks," Clare Nielsen, a spokeswoman for the American Bird Conservancy, told The Times. "They are not part of our native wildlife, and they kill more birds than any other direct human-caused threat — more than two billion each year in the U.S.

"The question is, how will the data be used? We're hoping the effort will lead to an honest conversation about what sustainable solutions for D.C.'s homeless cats might look like."

If the count is successful, it could also become a model going forward for other cities to get a clear sense of what their cat population is, and how best to manage it.

"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," Boone said.

Why Washington is counting every cat
A $1.5 million plan is underway in Washington, D.C., to count every last cat in the city.