There are lap cats and street cats, and then there are the cats in between: the ones that don’t like people but aren’t quite tough enough to make it on the streets.
Those cats are problems for animal shelters. They hide, they hiss, they soil the carpet. They make lousy pets.
But they also have a strong suit: They’re often master mouse-catchers. And now, increasingly, they’re being hired to perform that duty for life as participants in “working cat” programs.
The programs are pretty simple: Shelters match people who have rodent problems – at barns, warehouses, stores, churchyards – with antisocial cats. The felines are expected to keep the pests at bay; the people compensate them with food, water and shelter from the elements.
Jim Trenter is a believer. He manages a grass seed warehouse in St. Paul, Minnesota, and told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that his company was losing $10,000 of the product each year to mice that chomped through bags of it.
Then Trenter recruited Fritz and Nutmeg, two tabbies, from the Animal Humane Society. Problem gone – and Fritz even ended up being pretty friendly. (Nutmeg? Not so much.)
“Best employees I have had!” Trenter told the Star Tribune. “And they don’t talk back.”
There’s nothing new about this, of course. Humans likely domesticated cats – or semi-domesticated them – more than 4,000 years ago because the felines’ extermination skills kept rodents away from crops and grain stores. In more modern times, they’ve been known as barncats.
But working cat programs are growing increasingly popular as animal shelters around the United States look for ways to keep more cats alive. About 1.4 million cats are euthanized in U.S. shelters each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The Arizona Humane Society always hires out its working cats in pairs, and it says the introverted animals “would love to spend their lives helping to control your warehouse, ranch, mill or barn’s rodent and pest population. All they ask for in return is shelter, food, water and care.”
Other organizations focus more on placing working cats in urban settings where rodents proliferate, such as the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. One resident there recently described her very creepy-sounding rat problem to NPR this way: “No one used the yard one summer because every time you’d go out, they’d like run across your feet . . . Once it got dark, you would hear them, ‘tch, tch, tch, tch, tch, tch, tch tch,’ back and forth on the deck.”
Poison didn’t work, she said. Neither did underground fencing. Three adopted feral cats, assigned to duty in the backyard, did the trick.
Paul Nickerson, the manager for the Cats at Work program for the Tree House Humane Society in Chicago, told NPR that feline pheromones – he called them “predator pheromones” – help keep rats at bay.
“The cats will kill off a great deal of the initial population of the rats,” he said. “But through spreading their pheromones, they will keep other rats from filling their vacuum.”
At the Original L.A. Flower Market, two cats named Pacino and DeNiro have been among a crew of 15 felines hired to skulk among the blossoms and seek out a “pair of beady eyes hidden in the row of flowers,” according to the L.A. Times.
When one rat patrol member died, the market’s executive vice president told the Times, the rodents were quickly back on its turf, a parking lot. He called for another cat.
“It was unbelievable. The rats returned like they never left,” Scott Yamabe said. “And they disappeared just as fast when a new cat appeared. Those cats make a real difference.”