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Don't bother petting these cats -- they're working

About five years ago, Chicago resident Paul Nickerson turned to a trio of cats to deal with a rodent infestation after higher-tech pest-control methods failed. He figured he had nothing to lose.

“It got to the point where my neighbors and I couldn’t walk out of our back doors to throw the garbage out at night because rats would be running over our feet,” Nickerson said.

The cats came from a Tree House Humane Society program that places animals that aren’t suited for life as house pets in places where their native talents as hunters are needed, such as warehouses and breweries. 

In Nickerson’s case, the field of battle was his two-car garage, where he also stores beekeeping equipment and other gear. His feline team was led by a calico female he named “Kevorkian -- The Angel of Death,” in reference to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the late champion of assisted suicide.  

“For about a year, I’d see a dead rat probably on a daily basis,” said Nickerson, adding that the rats are now gone. In fact, he was so taken with his cats that he eventually joined Tree House and now runs the shelter’s “Cats at Work” program.  

According to Nickerson, the cost for three working cats, which is a typical order, is $650, which includes the cost of spaying and neutering and equipment such as a heated pad. Clients must agree to feed and provide medical care for the animals. They also need to pass a screening process.

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Other shelters around the country have similar programs.

About 100 otherwise unadoptable cats from Philadelphia have found new homes in barns and stables over the past year, according to Ame Dorminy, of ACCT Philadephia, an animal rescue group. Some “working cats” even warmed up to humans once they got situated in their new homes, she said. 

Feline mouse eradication specialists are on the job at the Southern California Flower Market, the country’s largest, in Los Angeles. The Arizona Humane Society has a waiting list for working cats, according to spokeswoman Bretta Nelson. Minnesota businessman Jim Trenter is such a fan of the program that he’s planning to get a new feline to patrol his grass seed business after someone “catnapped” his Fritz, a working cat he adopted last March.

Beyond helping people deal with vermin, shelters put cats to work to generate revenue, which helps ease the burden of caring for the 6 million to 8 million unwanted pets that wind up in their care every year. According to Dorminy, working cats take up space that could go to cats who have a better chance of being adopted.

“Anytime we can move a cat fast, it saves us money,” she said. 

The felines also appeal to people leery about using rat poisons favored by professional exterminators, which charge between $200 and $2,000 to handle a rodent infestation depending on the size of the property and damage involved, according to HomeAdvisor.

Working cat programs “are popping up all over the place,” said Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy at The Humane Society of the U.S. “Perhaps if the shelter is crowded or the cat is near another cat, and they get sick, then you have medical concerns -- veterinary visits, medications -- all of that.”

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According to the Humane Society, animal control organizations spend as much as $1 billion annually to combat such problems. In some regions, two-thirds of the animals in shelters are cats, and roughly 70 percent of them are euthanized.

The cats that shelters draft as workers are often closer to the kind of feline that has long patrolled barns and lived outside than the sort of cossetted cuties that are daily fodder for YouTube. 

Many are feral and afraid of humans, or at least indifferent toward them. Nickerson said “Kevorkian” and her associates “Morticia,” a gray-and-white longhair female, and “Eberkanisis,” an orange-and-white female, remain leery of him.

“For the first couple of years, they would not even stay in the garage with me,” he said. “They were deathly afraid of me. They’re not like a house cat where you can sit there and pet them all day.They have a threshold where they get overstimulated. So you can only pet them a couple of times, and then they let me know that I have overstepped my welcome.”

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