Got rats? Call on Philly's Working Cats

Monster was just a smidgen of a city cat — pint-sized, the color of smoke, and just about out of time. Her exit date — animal-control speak for euthanasia — was looming.

But wait.

About 40 miles north of Philadelphia, the Barrett family was in a bind. New to farming, the couple were besieged by mice running rampant in their Harleysville barns and chipmunks digging a network of tunnels to rival the New York City subway system.  They heard of a Philadelphia program that might pack the muscle they needed. But who for the job?

On a list of gig-seeking felines , they spied a smoky smidgen of a city cat.

Monster got the nod first. Then Captain, a white-and-orange bruiser, and Luna, a tabby with Garboesque tendencies.

"What the heck? Three barns, three cats," said Elizabeth Barrett, mistress of Little Croft Farm.

That's how Monster and company joined the ranks of Working Cats, an animal rescue option in Philadelphia and other cities that finds homes for cats that are not quite house pets, yet not wild enough to make it in a feral cat colony.  

Philadelphia's Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT), the shelter that was the source of the Little Croft trio, and the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSCPA), which also handles thousands of abandoned and homeless animals a year, both have working cat programs.

Since they began a few years ago, more than 100 seemingly unadoptable Philly cats have found homes in bucolic settings such as farms and stables where rodent deterrence is in demand.

"The adopters are glad to take these cats," said Tammy Miller, ACCT's feline program manager. "They get the rodent control they want, and they get to say they saved a life."

Philadelphia property owners might want to get in on the action, given recent study results. The American Housing Survey found that Philadelphia had the highest rate of household rodent sightings of 25 metro areas. Plus, calls to the city's Rat Complaint Line went up more than 25 percent from 2014 through 2016. Officials say they aren't sure of the reasons for the increase.

Indeed, both local cat programs hope to expand to such city venues as warehouses, garages,  artist studios, police stations — places interested in green pest control and willing to welcome furry vermin fighters.

The price is right

Working cats are not just hired guns. They're adopted; they must be fed and cared for. But they come vaccinated, microchipped and neutered, and the price is right. ACCT offers its working cats free, and the PSPCA charges only $20 for two cats.

But even at the PSPCA, which has a no-kill philosophy, finding happy endings for felines such as these can  be a challenge.

Nationwide, there are an estimated 70 million stray cats. Some are adopted as pets. Others are captured, neutered, and returned to functioning feral cat colonies by local cat lovers and agencies such as the PSPCA and ACCT.

Others don't quite fit either category. Hence, Working Cats.

"It's a really difficult niche," said Staci Papadoplos, PSPCA's animal care manager.

Working Cats can be those fearful shelter felines that hiss and resist socialization efforts.  Or they may like people fine, but refuse to be housebroken. Some are feral cats that survived human abuse. Others are rescued from hoarding situations.

Near and far, felines make their own working cat arrangements.

The cats of Rome are the stuff of legend, fussed over by the gattare — cat ladies — the most famous of whom was said to have been film diva Anna Magnani.

Disneyland, despite its mouse icon, has also attracted feline residents that have garnered internet fans.

Closer to home, Longwood Gardens' website calls its cats natural pest controllers and ambassadors.

Around the country, there are successful — even celebrated — working cat programs.

Los  Angeles' program started in the city's Flower Market, according to the Voice for the Animals Foundation, and expanded, earning a commendation from Police Chief William J. Bratton.

Chicago's Cats at Work program has been in such demand,  residential requests — some from the Windy City's toniest neighborhoods — took months to fill last year, said program manager Paul Nickerson. 

"I think gentrification has had a big effect," he said. "They cleansed the areas of cats, and the rats took over."

For $650, adopters get three cats, an animal shelter, and niceties that included heated pads. As with virtually all such programs, adopters also are loaned a big dog crate to keep the cats while they  get acclimated — and recognize they're being fed regularly. 

Nickerson's own first working cat racked up four dead rats in its first hour on the job. Kitty's name: Kevorkian.

Carlo Siracusa, director of the Animal Behavior Service at Penn Vet's Ryan Hospital, said working cat programs were in keeping with feline nature.

"Being a predator is natural to a cat," he said.

They do it because they enjoy it, not to please us. But what about cats that bring prey home?  Presents for their people?

Not likely. They're probably just following instinct, bringing food back to their lair, Siracusa said.

As for kitty safety, Siracusa conceded that freedom for felines, as for humans,  comes with risks.

"There is an ongoing debate: Whether it's better to live a fulfilling, shorter life," he said, "or a boring, longer life."

'Much more friendly'

Janel Ashburn has Ashburn's Animals in Selinsgrove, a veritable Noah's Ark that includes therapy animals.  But not a big cat lover, she wasn't expecting much beyond pest control when she adopted some PSPCA working cats. Her adoptees, including pizza-loving Jasper, were a delightful surprise.

"They were much more friendly than I thought they would be," said Ashburn. "They follow you around. You can't help but love them."

Indeed, shelter cats can be quite different once they feel at home.

"The change in Monster was instantaneous," said Elizabeth Barrett. "From the time she came on the farm, she was wholly different than her description from the shelter."

Now little Monster likes belly rubs. Luna remains a solitary prowler, but Captain is a purrer and a leaner.

And those chipmunk tunnels are no more. Most of the mice have also moved on.

The cats "immediately took to their labors of rodent hunting and control," Elizabeth said. "All three are happy, thriving, and best of all, home." 

To adopt a Working Cat, contact Staci Papadoplos at spapadoplos@pspca.org or 215-426-6300, Ext. 266; or ACCT Philly at lifesaving@acctphilly.org. For more information: acctphilly.org/workingcats.

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