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Working Cats-TNR Programs Are Helping Stray and Feral Cats Get to Work

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In the dusty, grimy shadows of abandoned buildings, vacant lots, alleyways, and backyards—in cities and in rural areas—millions of stray and feral cats struggle to survive. These cats live short lives that are persistently threatened by disease, dehydration, starvation, and a myriad of environmental dangers. Unfortunately, many cities and towns resort to euthanasia to control the stray and feral cat population in their communities, but this method is cruel and ineffective. There is a better way: trap, neuter, and return (TNR). The TNR method acknowledges the inherent rights cats have to live free of cruelty and fear, while also recognizing the community’s need to reduce their numbers. TNR programs have been implemented throughout the US, and many city governments are beginning to support these programs because of the benefit the cats provide as effective and inexpensive pest-control workers. These “working cats” are proving that dogs are not the only animals with a strong work ethic. In fact, working cats have a history of service going back thousands of years! Broadway Barks researched this topic and interviewed some experts to bring you the latest information regarding working cats and the TNR programs that are fighting to save them.

Working Cats in History

Ever since the days of Cleopatra and King Tut, cats have been living with humans as companions and co-workers. In ancient Egypt, cats were taken on Nile riverboats to help catch birds. Cats were eventually taken aboard trading and cargo ships, which is likely how cats first arrived in Europe. Despite their well-known distaste for getting wet, cats are quite comfortable on the high seas! But these ship cats were not being treated to a relaxing cruise—they had a job to do. These early working cats served mainly in the area of pest control, which was a very important job. Rats and mice posed a serious threat to a ship’s ropes and its wood construction, contaminated food and grain supplies, and carried deadly communicable diseases like plague. Cats working on these ships controlled the rodent population and offered companionship to the sailors who often suffered from anxiety and loneliness during months at sea.

Two notable modern-day seafaring felines were Blackie and Peebles. Blackie worked aboard the HMS Prince of Wales, a British Royal Navy battleship. During one of HMS Prince of Wales’ most important missions, the ship carried British Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to Newfoundland for a secret meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The meeting was a success and resulted in the signing of the Atlantic Charter. As Churchill prepared to disembark, Blackie made an appearance to bid the Prime Minister farewell, and the moment was caught by waiting photographers. The published photos showed the Prime Minister bending down to pet the ship’s working cat, who—in honor of the Prime Minister—was renamed Churchill. Peebles was another WWII cat, who became the most beloved crewmember of the HMS Western Isles. Peebles maintained his regular rodent-control duties and still made time to entertain the rest of the crew with tricks such as shaking hands and jumping through hoops.

Winston Churchill pets Blackie aboard the HMS Prince of Wales.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Stray and Feral Working Cats and the TNR Process

Today, stray and feral cats live and work in factories, farms, warehouses, gardens, homes, churches, boats, and businesses of all types. Many homes and businesses have a working cat to control pesky rats and mice without the use of traps and harsh or dangerous chemicals. Some of these cats are family pets, while others are stray or feral cats that are part of a carefully managed colony. Not every cat is suitable as a working cat, just as some cats are unsuitable to be house pets. TNR experts are able to identify whether a cat is stray or feral and whether that cat should be placed in a home or is more likely to flourish outdoors. A feral or stray cat should never be moved carelessly since they will roam away or try to return to their previous home. It takes knowledge and expertise to properly and successfully relocate a cat, and it should only be done if the cat’s life is in danger. To ensure that a working cat is healthy and a cat colony is managed properly takes the expertise of a knowledgeable TNR team.

The process of placing feral cats in a new home can take several weeks. First, stray or feral cats are humanely captured and examined by a veterinarian. The cats are given any needed medical treatments to ensure they are healthy. They are spayed or neutered, eartipped, and vaccinated. Next, TNR workers scout out a suitable location such as a barn, shed, porch, garage, or basement. The cats are then moved to the selected location and are confined to kennels while they get used to the new neighborhood sights, sounds, and smells. While the cats are acclimating, the new caretaker sets up shelter for them, as well as a feeding station and litter area. The caretakers visit the cats daily to talk to them and give them special treats, which serves to make the cats feel welcome and to motivate them to stay around after they are released. Once the cats are released from their kennels they will live and work in their new territory. The caretakers provide the basic needs for the cats, and in return the cats keep rodents away. The cats are very dependable, and you couldn’t ask for better employees—they work holidays and weekends, and they never ask for a raise! And because working TNR cats are always spayed or neutered, there’s no need to worry about them having kittens!

Chicago’s Tree House and TNR Ordinance

Tree House is a cageless, no-kill shelter that specializes in the rescue and rehabilitation of sick and injured feral and stray cats. Tree House believes that TNR will ultimately eliminate the homeless cat population, and it strives to innovate its rescue approach to both enhance the lives of Chicago’s feral and stray cat population and engage the community through education and outreach. Tree House has become a leader in feral colony management and is currently managing more than 250 colonies with more than 2,000 cats! Tree House sponsors each colony caretaker, providing free and discounted spay/neuter surgery packages that include vaccinations, parasite treatments, microchipping, and eartipping. Tree House also offers free food for colony caretakers through their Pet Food Pantry as well as regular feral cat education seminars.

Tree House’s “Cats at Work” project places working cats where rodent problems exist. These are stray or feral cats that would otherwise have been euthanized. So far, Tree House has placed more than 100 working cats in city and suburban residences, barns, and factories. One company, Skolnik Industries, chose to employ two Tree House working cats to solve a rodent problem at its manufacturing facility rather than using chemicals. Howard Skolnik, CEO of Skolnik Industries, proudly states, “We are rodent free, and we have the benefit of having two ‘anti-tension’ felines on staff, in their new home.” It is a true win-win situation for the cats and Skolnik Industries. As Jenny Schlueter, Tree House’s Community Cats Program Director explains, “We receive no government funding at all. We are 100% funded by private donations, and we are so grateful for our supporters who recognize that we are always innovating in an effort to save as many animals as we can.” Tree House does receive some government support, however, in the form of the Managed Feral Cats Ordinance, which was passed by Cook County in 2007. Jenny Schlueter says, “The ordinance is not perfect, but it has lent legitimacy to our work in the eyes of the public. When there are issues with neighbors who are unhappy about the cats, we provide a copy of the ordinance to them, and when they realize that this is widely accepted even by the local government, they usually calm down and start listening to us.” In March 2013, the Cook County government announced that the ordinance and related TNR programs were working and had saved the county thousands of dollars by reducing the feral cat population and spaying/neutering roughly 12,000 cats, which prevented the birth of more than 330,000 kittens. In Chicago, TNR is a humane, cost-effective, and proven method of reducing the cat population over time while also controlling the rodent problem.

New York’s Feral Cat Initiative

In NYC, the stray and feral cat problem is magnified by the city’s high population density. The city used to trap and kill these cats; however, that practice was discontinued because it was completely ineffective—not to mention cruel to animals that only exist because of irresponsible humans. To bring the stray and feral cat situation under control, the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals created the NYC Feral Cat Initiative (FCI), which runs a TNR program that strives to reduce the numbers of stray and feral cats in NYC and lessen nuisance behaviors that disturb residents. Not only does FCI trap and neuter stray and feral cats, they also vaccinate the cats before they are released, which helps stop the spread of disease and eliminates annoying mating behaviors such as yowling, fighting, and territory marking. NYC's program differs from Chicago’s in that it does not relocate stray and feral cats but instead returns them to their neighborhoods. Because the city is so densely populated and the number of cat colonies so large, there hasn't been a need to relocate cats for rodent control; as the cats return to their communities they naturally serve as pest-control for the surrounding businesses and residences. A popular misconception regarding TNR is that the cats are killing all the rodents. However, as Mike Phillips, FCI Community Outreach Director, explains, “Cats aren’t going around killing every rat in sight. It’s the presence of the cats…it deters the rats from setting up shop…the rats just move out.” Like Chicago’s Tree House, FCI doesn’t receive government funding; however, the government-run Animal Care and Control (ACC) does support the TNR groups logistically. FCI’s Mike Phillips states, “The ACC will not euthanize a feral cat that has been eartipped before working extensively to locate the cat’s caretakers.” The Mayor’s Alliance Wheels of Hope program also provides transportation for stray and feral cats, and NYC’s extensive network of no-kill rescues often team up to save as many animals as possible. It is a community effort.


The TNR practice does have its detractors—people worried about diseases spread by outdoor cats, or bird lovers concerned about damage to the native bird population. But if you investigate a little further it becomes clear that the crux of the debate really revolves around the high number of stray and feral cats upsetting the natural balance. Estimates range from 80 to 150 million stray and feral cats in the US. And because TNR programs focus on humane treatment of the cats, many feral cats are living longer, healthier lives. NYC’s oldest TNR cat colony illustrates the dichotomy. The San Remo colony, named after the luxury residential building where the cats live, began in 2001 with 75 cats. The NYC-based Urban Cat League trapped all 75 cats, vaccinated, spayed/neutered, and eartipped them. All the kittens (six litters total) were tamed and placed for adoption along with six tame stray cats. Twenty-five cats were returned to the San Remo, where volunteer caretakers set up a feeding station and shelter for the cats. FCI’s Mike Phillips says, “Now, through attrition, only five cats remain. We thought the cats would live three to four years, but 12 years later five are still living. It’s a testament to the increase in life span that can be given by humane care.” So, while TNR programs do reduce the feral/stray population, the humane treatment extends cat’s lives so the numbers of cats are reduced very slowly.

TNR advocates are against policies that call for capturing and killing to reduce the cat population and prevent nuisance behaviors, but they still support a community’s need to reduce the number of stray and feral cats. The problem is that there are not enough TNR programs to combat the number of irresponsible cat owners who abandon cats or let their cats reproduce. This is not a reason to euthanize more cats; conversely, it seems to point to a multi-pronged solution: enacting and enforcing stricter spay/neuter laws, educating cat owners about keeping cats indoors, and expanding TNR programs like the ones in Chicago and New York to address the stray and feral populations humanely while helping people see the presence of managed cat colonies in their community as a benefit rather than a nuisance. As Mike Phillips says, “TNR is just one of the tools in the toolbox.”

By Charlene Sloan

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