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Worth every scent

Working cats send rats packing

From Animal Sheltering Magazine November/December 2013

In Kentucky, working cats Vincent and Van Gogh adjust to their new surroundings, during their holding period, in a dog crate that contains a feral den in which to hide.Kentucky Humane Society’s Working Cats program places kitties who may be unsocialized or have litter box problems—but would be happy as barn cats—within a 50-mile radius of Louisville. This black beauty, Vincent, patrols a tack room on a private farm.

Back in the late 1990s, Carl Jones, maintenance manager at the Los Angeles Flower Mart, frequently heard screams from vendors and customers. It usually meant they’d spotted rats, searching the aisles for tasty carnation seeds. Staff had tried for decades to get rid of the rats, but in 1999, after just two months, four cats succeeded where they had failed.

The cats were placed by Voice for the Animals Foundation’s (VFTAF) working cats program. Melya Kaplan, executive director of the Santa Monica, Calif., organization, saw it as a way to save cats’ lives by giving them a job in the community. Businesses request cats from VFTAF; the organization inspects their location to confirm it’s cat-safe, assesses the rodent problem, and determines how many cats are needed and where to hide their cages during their acclimation period. Then VFTAF pulls cats—already sterilized, vaccinated, ear-tipped, and microchipped—from Los Angeles shelters holding animals they’ve deemed feral.

VFTAF takes the cats directly to the location, sets up cages with food, litter boxes, and toys, and teaches caregivers how to look after the cats. The cats are confined next to each other in large, cat-show-size cages for one month prior to beginning their work so they can adjust to their new home’s sights, sounds, and smells, and to each other. They don’t usually kill rodents; the program works because their scent is enough to keep rats away.

Cats who reveal themselves to be socialized during the confinement period must be returned to VFTAF for adoption into homes; replacements are provided. Since the program began, VFTAF has placed about 200 cats, not only at the Los Angeles Flower Mart, but at the nearby Orchid Mart, Crossroads School campus, and the Los Angeles Police Department.

VFTAF’s adoption contract requires that caregivers provide fresh food and water and clean litter boxes daily for their cats’ lifetimes. Jones cared for his first working cats at the flower market for 13 years, until they passed away. “Those four were my champions,” Jones says. VFTAF brought him five new cats, but he still misses his originals.

In 2011, Lori Kane Redmon, president of the Kentucky Humane Society (KHS), started a similar program. The KHS program began after Redmond realized that many of the animals being euthanized were cats who were unsocialized or had litter box issues, but who might do fine as working cats. Initially called Barn Cats, in 2012, the shelter changed the name to Working Cats to give the cats more respect.

The same year, KHS, Metro Animal Services, and Alley Cat Advocates (ACA) helped pass a community cat ordinance in Louisville. Previously, ACA pulled ear-tipped cats from Metro Animal Services for KHS’s Working Cats program, but now that animal services no longer impounds ear-tipped cats, ACA can focus strictly on trap-neuter-return. Animal services still impounds cats who aren’t ear-tipped, brings them to KHS’s spay/neuter clinic, and returns them to their territory—unless people in the area have said they don’t want the cats returned. In those cases, they’re enrolled in the Working Cats program.

At KHS’s facility, working cats are housed in large dog crates and get a carrier or feral den in which to hide. The crates are placed next to each other. After several days, if the cats are doing OK, they’re let out. Working cats are placed within a 50-mile radius of Louisville; 98 percent of them go to small farms. Because of logistics and time constraints, Tammy Siers, a coordinator for the program, doesn’t visit these outlying locations before placement, but she does assess them in advance with an adoption survey. When city residents want mousers for outbuildings or have allergies and want outdoor pets, Siers visits these locations to evaluate major roads and other potential dangers. She delivers cats in bonded pairs, along with supplies and a crate for their two- to three-week confinement. There’s no adoption fee.

Many staff expressed concern about the cats’ long-term care on farms, but Siers’ experience has shown that they’re well-cared-for. In 2012, 88 cats were adopted and were still in their new areas six months later. By mid-July of this year, 82 cats had already been placed.

In 2013, after veterinarians told Siers that front-declawed cats could still climb to escape danger and defend themselves, they too became eligible for the Working Cats program. She always tries to find special outdoor placements in the suburbs for the occasional declawed cats who are placed in the program; these cats must have a safe place at night to avoid nocturnal animals.

“I love this program and hope others get ahold of it and let it take off,” Siers says. “Hopefully there won’t be so many cats dying in shelters.”

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.