TWS2020: New app pinpoints feral cats

Right from your smart phone, you can help provide information about where feral cats are found to managers and conservationists trying to protect species that may be prey to the expansive, invasive species.

“The cat is a pretty impressive animal anatomically, physiologically, ecologically,” said Jason Luscier, an associate professor of biological and environmental sciences at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, during an oral presentation at The Wildlife Society’s virtual annual conference. “That’s important to think about, because this incredible predator has now become feral and free-roaming about the landscape, resulting in it being an invasive species.”

Once valued by farmers to control pests, cats have gone feral, Luscier said. Others are left outdoors by pet owners. Now, the International Union for Conservation of Nature considers them the world’s most invasive species, he said. In North America, they’re the most abundant carnivore roaming the landscape.

The problem is, cats can prey on threatened or endangered wildlife species, including small mammals and birds. Right now, managing cat populations often involves trapping, and neutering. “The real question is will this have an effect on feral populations?” he said. “We have evidence that this isn’t the most effective approach.”

So Luscier set out to create a mobile app to provide some information about where cats are roaming and how many of them there are, especially in the Syracuse area. Anyone can download the app called CatTracker for free, go around the city and record the cats they say.

Users can log how many cats they see, what behaviors they witness. Is the cat resting? Walking? Chasing something? Does it have prey in its mouth? The app notes the phone’s GPS location. A final screen allows users to add in any additional comments before submitting the data.

“Data comes to me, and I’m able to plot them on the map and begin to examine patterns in cat distribution throughout the city,” Luscier said.

So far, most sightings have been around Le Moyne College — because that’s where his students are using the app. “My hope moving forward, in the coming weeks, months, is to really ramp up survey effort, get as much as the city covered as possible,” he said. “What I didn’t expect, though, is that the use would occur far beyond the city of Syracuse.”

People from 35 states, from Florida to California, have used the app. Some have logged on from as far away as Australia. Individuals even reached out to Luscier to ask if they could use the app to help them inform their research and management plans.

Luscier hopes to even get cat advocate groups involved in the app. “My thought was the app could be a way to reach across the aisle if you will to engage cat advocate groups,” he said.

So far, Luscier hasn’t had much success with the CNY Cat Coalition, an animal rescue group in Syracuse. But that’s not stopping him from trying to bridge the divide. Local natural centers and other conservation groups as well as animal control officers and members of the public are showing interest in the app, he said.

“It’s a super awesome tool for engaging community members in this really important ecological issue,” he said.

Read the TWS issue statement on feral and free-ranging domestic cats here. 

Conference participants can viisit office hours for this contributed paper on Thursday, Oct. 1 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. to learn more and ask questions.

Header Image: A new mobile app can help researchers map out where feral cats are found. Credit: Joey Doll