Sometimes the simplest of fixes is located right in your backyard.
Back in 2005, when I was working as the development director at Tree House Humane Society, I set-up a hotline for people who had questions about stray cats. Soon we could hardly keep up with the requests for help from people all over the city with cats in backyards, alleys, and garages. A movement of independent volunteers unofficially worked the streets— trapping cats, getting them spayed/ neutered, and returning them to their colonies (referred to in the rescue world as Trap-Neuter-Return, or TNR).
While most feral cats thrive outside on their own, some cannot go back to their territories and need to be relocated. For many years, dedicated colony managers would find barns, stables, and fosters willing to help socialize these feral cats. In November 2007, Cook County’s “Managed Care of Feral Cats Ordinance” passed and TNR finally went mainstream, allowing people to share more information and collaborate on their efforts. However, as the program grew, the number of cats needing new territories grew as well.
In Spring 2012, a Tree House volunteer was working on a hoarding situation. Many of the cats were “indoor ferals” who would not be comfortable in a home or shelter environment. Quite fortuitously, around the same time Tree House received a call from a southwest-side manufacturer inquiring about adopting some cats to patrol their factory floor. We thought this bunch of ferals might be a match made in heaven, so we took two of them over for a trial run. In a quiet corner of the facility, factory employees built them an 8-feet long, 5-feet wide, 3-story cat condo complete with tunnels and huts.
The cats lived in the condo for the first two months. They were fed at exactly the same time every day as they got to know the sights, sounds, and people of the factory. When they were finally let out to explore the rest of the space, they knew when to eat, and where their safe zone was. They happily went about hunting the factory’s rodents. The cats loved their new environment, and the business owner was thrilled to have the added feline security on the job.
It was then that Tree House’s “Cats at Work” program was born. Under the mandates of Cook County’s 2007 feral cat ordinance, otherwise unadoptable cats get to spend their days in safe territories while in turn repelling, hunting, and catching rodents for their adopters. It’s a win-win: In exchange for food and shelter, feral cats provide peace of mind with their excellent hunting skills. Tree House has partnered with various aldermen, including 47th Ward Alderman Ameya Pawar and 50th Ward Alderman Debra Silverstein, who can now offer constituents options when they inquire about rats.
To date, more than 500 feral cats have found new places to live out their lives through the Cats at Work program. With assistance from colony caretakers, the cats continue to provide a much-needed service to their communities in the form of natural, safe, and eco-friendly rodent control. It’s a bright example of the good that can come when neighbors work together to solve urban issues in a unique way.
ANOTHER SUCCESS STORY
Some of the most famous Cats at Work alumni are four cats living at Chicago’s. Empirical Brewery. Lovingly referred to as “The Ghostbusters,” Venkman, Ray, Egon, and Gozer relocated to the brewery after their caretakers moved away and no one else in the neighborhood wanted to care for them. The Empirical team enthusiastically embraced their new four-legged “employees” and even held a social media contest to name them. The cats enjoy securing the brewery’s production facility, chasing laser pointers, and scratching at any pieces of cardboard they can get their paws on. They even find some time for social media! You can follow Venkman on Twitter @VenkmanTheCat.