Like most big cities, Chicago has a rat problem. Exterminators and local municipalities do their best to make a dent, but now there is a new approach to rodent control that's actually quite old. Jay Shefsky visits a Chicago condo building with its own feral cat colony created to control rats.
Jay Shefsky: This may be ordinary cat food. But it's not intended for ordinary house cats.
Anne Zender and her North Side condo neighbors have adopted a colony of feral cats.
And in return for food and shelter, Anne and her neighbors expect help from these wild cats to solve a gnawing problem—rats.
Julia Maish: It is unsettling to come out here at night try to take out the garbage and you know hear them scuttling around, you know.
Shefsky: One of the condo owners is my WTTW colleague Julia Maish. Julia says the restaurants nearby and the L, probably make matters worse.
The adopted cats eat and sometimes sleep in this shelter built by a resident of the building. There are four cats in this colony. They're all from the same litter.
Anne Zender: Two of them are black and white, and two of them are black. So it's very hard to tell who you're dealing with at any given time.
Shefsky: They were removed from an abandoned building on the West Side and brought here by The Tree House Humane Society.
Normally, Tree House finds homes for domesticated cats like the ones in this room.
But in 2007 Tree House's Jenny Schlueter, thought of a way to protect feral cats and make them useful.
Jenny Schlueter: I knew there was a need in the city for rat control. I knew that feral cats were good at catching rats and deterring them. It was eco-friendly, it was inexpensive, and it was humane. And so it was a win-win for both our community and the cats.
Shefsky: They call the project "cats at work" and they sponsor more than 500 colonies.
Schlueter: When we bring the cats to the homeowners, they've been spayed and neutered, they're up-to-date on vaccines, they've received parasite treatments and they're microchipped, so they're all ready to go.
Shefsky: I found out that it's not always easy for a visitor to get a look at these cats.
Zender: We usually see them in the evening when it's our turn to feed. And sometimes if it's a nice afternoon, you can see them lounging out here on the neighbors deck.
Shefsky: At last they appear. Now, feral cats are wild. They're descended from house cats and have lost all socialization to humans. So getting them attached to a new territory can be tough.
Zender: The Tree House instructions were to try to keep them enclosed, so that they would bond with the building.
Schlueter: They have to be enclosed for about three weeks because if we just dropped them off there they would take off and try to go back home.
Shefsky: These cats have been here for two years now and the neighbors say it's working.
So once you got the cats, how fast did the rats go away?
Maish: I think the impact was almost instantaneous, actually. Because, it isn't so much that the rats could even probably see the cats, it's that they can smell them and sense them. And they realize the atmosphere is not hospitable and the go somewhere else.
Shefsky: Thank God!
Maish: Yes, Thank God.
Shefsky: And yet, while they see no more rats, they say they rarely see dead rats.
Schlueter: We can't always say if the cat will be a good hunter, but we do know however, is the presence of cats in an area deter rats. So whether the cat is catching and killing them or not, it doesn’t matter. Their presence makes the rats stay away.
Shefsky: The food seems to bring the cats closer, but they're taking their time. Maybe it's all the people and the TV camera watching them from the second floor.
Now, I have to save these don't look like wild cats to me. They actually look clean and well groomed. They look like somebody's pet cat.
Eric Sinclair: They're very healthy. They're well fed. They’re not hunting for food all the time and living on a vague subsistence diet. They get three squares a day kind of thing.
Shefsky: Finally, it's time to eat. Our hidden camera sees one cat, and then a second enter and eat.
Those blue boxes behind them, by the way, provide a heated shelter in the winter.
The other cats arrive and eat, and then head off—hopefully to hold up their end of the bargain.
Managed Feral Cat Colonies
In 2007, the Cook County Board of Commissioners approved an ordinance that allowed for the managed care of feral cats.
The ordinance permits feral cat colonies and outlines responsibilities of feral cat colony caretakers, which includes providing food and water, obtaining the proper medical attention for the colony, and providing a semi-annual report on the colony.
Tree House Humane Society runs Tree House Cats at Work, which is a program that places sterilized and vaccinated feral cats in new territories where they will help control the rodent population.
Tree House volunteers had been practicing Trap-Neuter-Return of feral cats for many years, and in 2005 the Cats at Work program was formalized.
More than 250 managed cat colonies, featuring more than 2,000 free-roaming cats in Cook County are sponsored by Trap-Neuter-Return/Cats at Work.
Since its inception, nearly 75 Tree House “working cats” have been successfully placed in several private city and suburban backyards, dozens of barns, and even a factory.