In the age-old fight against that urban disease vector the rat, one big city animal shelter offers a fluffy solution.
The Tree House Humane Society's Cats at Work Project matches feral felines with Chicagoans overrun with rats. The businesses and residents who sign up for the program get a team of spayed, neutered and vaccinated rodent killers in exchange for $600 and a commitment to feed the felines twice a day.
The 5-year-old program is so popular that there's now a monthslong waiting list, said Liz Houtz, community cats program manager at the Tree House Humane Society. So far about 600 cats have been placed in “private city and suburban backyards, dozens of barns, and at condo buildings, factories and warehouses,” according to the Tree House website. One local craft brewery uses the cats to guard its grain.
Many Windy Citians are desperate to get rid of rats, which lurk near train tracks and scamper through the city's tony lakefront neighborhoods, Houtz said.
Rats, along with mice, can spread more than 35 diseases, including hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, salmonellosis and leptospirosis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Plus, they're icky.
“Usually, our clients are people who have tried everything else—baiting, gassing, digging trenches, paving their yards over—and nothing seems to work,” Houtz said.
The Humane Society starts by setting up large crates near the cats' new home, furnished with insulated shelters, litter boxes and toys. The cats stay in the crates for about four weeks to acclimate to their new surroundings before the crates are slowly removed.
Houtz called the cats' effectiveness at clearing rats “about 100%.” Often, pheromones in the cats' urine help drive them away, she said.
But the Illinois Audubon Society worries the cats will kill birds and other wildlife.
“We hope they find a home,” Tom Clay, Illinois Audubon Society executive director, said of the cats, “but we definitely believe they do not belong in the wild.”