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Cats vs. Rats: How Felines Are Cleaning Up Chicago

When you top Orkin’s “Rattiest Cities in America” list two years in a row, it’s a sign that you need to do something differently.

Such was the case for Chicago, who topped the exterminator’s list in 2013 and 2014.

So the city decided to try a vastly different technique in addition to the usual rodent baiting and attempts to keep garbage contained — they called in an army of cats.

Here’s how these feral felines are helping to clean up Chicago.

Understanding the Feral Cat Population

Most urban centers like Chicago have not only a healthy rat population, but also a significant number of feral cats. These cats are born in the wild and are not socialized or acclimated to humans. They are truly wild animals and do not do well in shelters or home environments. When they are trapped and taken to animal control centers, they are frequently euthanized. In the past, many city dwellers didn’t like having these cats around as they can be noisy and become numerous as they breed and have litters of multiple kittens quickly.

Rescue organizations, shelters, and many private individuals have worked to manage these colonies of feral cats by practicing Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR). The cats are caught using humane traps and taken to a clinic where they are spayed or neutered and typically receive microchips, antibiotics, and vaccines. After a one to two-day recovery period they are released back into the area where they were trapped. By controlling the feral cat population, these cats slowly began to be seen less as a nuisance and more as a part of urban wildlife.

Cats at Work

Tree House Humane Society on Chicago’s north side has long been involved in TNR and feral cat management. They have often relocated feral cats from dangerous areas, such as sites slated for demolition or construction, to neighborhoods where residents sign up as feral colony caretakers, providing regular food, clean water, and safe shelters.

One day, they had an epiphany — the city’s feral cat population could be enlisted to help fight its rat problem.

This idea led to the shelter’s Cats at Work program. With the blessing of the city, they help residents in rat-infested neighborhoods establish a group of feral cats (generally three, depending on the size of the area and the severity of the rodent problem) on their property. Tree House has established mini feral colonies in residential backyards, at condos, in barns, and in warehouses and factories.

The cats are spayed and neutered as normal, but they are released to a new territory. They can’t just be released though, they need to spend time in their new environment in a large crate or cage. The caretakers spend time talking to the cats as well during this acclimation period. The intention is not to turn the cats into pets, but rather to allow them to feel comfortable with the sights, sounds, and smells of their new territory.

Once they are released they will tend to stay in the area for several reasons. First, since they are spayed or neutered they will tend to roam over less territory than when they are not fixed. Second, they have a source of food so they aren’t motivated to search far and wide for their next meal. Finally, they are social and will tend to remain with the feral cats they know.

Cats as Rodent Control

Cats have long been known as a major predator of rodents. By some theories it was the decline in the cat population caused by witchcraft trials that allowed an uncontrolled rat population to bring on the Great Plague.

Because they have a regular source of food, the cats generally will kill the rats for sport and either leave them or bring them back home as a trophy. Cats in the wild don’t sit around as much as our domesticated felines, and they are used to spending a significant amount of their time hunting, so they can bring a rat population under control very quickly. The program has seen some very promising results, so much so that there is frequently a waiting list of two to four weeks for feral cats.

Cats are better than poison because they actually hunt the rodents down, while poison depends on the rats eating it and poses a danger to children, dogs, and domestic cats that may find their way outdoors. Feral cats are not aggressive toward people unless they are cornered or attempts are made to handle them, and they are vaccinated against rabies.

According to those who use these working cats to control their rodent population, it works. “Choosing not to use chemicals to combat a rodent problem at our manufacturing facility, we embraced the concept of giving the job to two rescue cats who were homeless,” says Howard Skolnik, president of Skolnik Industries, in a testimonial for the Cats at Work program. “We built them a home within our factory, trained them to feel safe in and protective of their new home, and in about 6 weeks, they were productive members of the Skolnik team — doing their job effectively. We are rodent free.”