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Why Chicago Imported Feral Cats

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Cat on a park bench by Carol M Highsmith
We have rats, the suburbs have skunks.
– Karen Franklin, professional Chicago dogwalker

In 2021, Chicago, Illinois won a dubious distinction: it topped the Orkin pest control company's list of '50 most rat-infested cities' in the United States. For the sixth time in a row1. This list is not just about bragging(?) rights. After a yearlong change in human behaviour patterns due to the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns about rodents were particularly relevant.

In an unprecedented year, the visibility of rodents has increased, creating concern for homeowners and business owners alike. As reported in the Spring, the pandemic-driven closure of restaurants forced rodents to find new food sources. Without food waste to consume, these pests were seen scavenging new areas and exhibiting unusual or aggressive behavior. The presence of rodents became so relevant that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued Rodent Control guidance on ways to keep rats and mice out of homes and businesses.
–   Orkin, 'Rats! Chicago Tops Orkin's Rattiest Cities List for Sixth Consecutive Time'

In addition to the danger of rats and mice as possible disease vectors, cities are concerned about rat populations for other reasons. A reputation for rats hurts the revenue-enhancing tourist industry: this is not one of the sights visitors want to see. Property values can be affected. Attracting new industry could be more difficult if the prospective business owners get a look at the Orkin report. And when the CDC is giving you funny looks, you should begin to think strategy.

Fortunately, help is available. It comes in a variety of colours and works for tuna and ear rubs. We refer, of course, to the Cats at Work Program of the Tree House Humane Society. You have rodents? They've got kitties. They may come from out-of-town but they're welcome migrants.

What Is a Feral Cat, and What Should We Do with Them?

Feral cats are cats that don't 'belong' to anyone – although it can be argued that no cats belong to humans, but merely tolerate them as long as the humans agree to open tins2. Feral cats, however, aren't used to living in houses, and don't meow (or at least, not as much as housecats). Meowing is a behaviour kittens learn when they discover how to successfully manipulate humans into doing their bidding. Feral cats are more independent. However, they could still use a square meal and a steady job. That's where the Tree House project comes in.

In many parts of the US, TNR programmes are carried out, usually by volunteers from humane societies. TNR stands for 'Trap, Neuter, Return'. Feral cats are humanely trapped, anaesthetised, neutered, vaccinated, and then returned to their outdoor homes. While they're unconscious, the vets clip the top of each cat's left ear. The clipped ear will prevent the cat's being picked up again in the next dragnet, which means it will only go through all this annoyance once.

Once a feral cat population has been 75% neutered, the cat population goes down to manageable levels. The cats that remain live longer and healthier lives – and even useful ones.

But what if the environment where the cat was trapped isn't a safe place for it to return to? And what if Chicagoans need rat control help elsewhere? That's where the Cats at Work Program comes in. Cats get useful employment, shelter, and noms in return for doing what they do best: terrorising rodents.

Working Cats on the City Streets

How do you get rid of rats? Rat poison can be hazardous to humans as well as desirable wildlife. Traps are labour-intensive to maintain and may involve getting closer to rodents than you might like. Why not hire a cat?

The Cats at Work Program allows people to adopt neutered-vaccinated-and-tagged kitties by providing them with outdoor shelter from the elements and agreeing to feed them. The cats don't really eat very many rats or mice. Mostly, they hunt them for sport. Yes, we know that sounds mean, but at least they don't mount the little heads on their walls.

All right, yes, they may present them to favoured humans. We didn't say this was a perfect system. We're working in the world of the possible, here.

The best way the cats deter rats and mice, though, isn't by eating them. Or even killing them. You see, cats give off pheromones, scents that other animals can smell. Cat pheromones are quite attractive to other cats but put the fear of Bastet the Cat Goddess into rodents. The rodents will want to move house. So cats drive mice and rats away just by sauntering around. You can't beat that for a solution to the rat problem.

So, if you live in a city, consider sponsoring a cat or two, either by donating money or offering to feed and house some feral cats. You'll make friends, some of them furry. The rats will all move to the suburbs, be sprayed by skunks, and become somebody else's problem. Who needs the Pied Piper when you have cats?

1Pittsburgh ranked only Number 18 in that list, although it undoubtedly leads the Windy City in black bear sightings.2Cats pretty much domesticated themselves, scientists agree.

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