Working Feral Cats Protect Human Health from Urban Rats

These feral cats were slated for being euthanized until an ingenious idea saved them–and the health of their fellow humans…


Are cats the ultimate weapon in public health?

Rats are… as anyone who remembers fourth grade history will tell you, disease carriers of the civilization-ending variety.
“Black death” may now be more manageable with modern pharmaceuticals, but rats also carry diseases like antibiotic-resistant E.coli and C.diff. This is scary stuff that’s tough to cure if a rat bites you.
Even if you don’t get that close, the vermin spread disease through their urine and feces. They also shed a lot and their fur is carried through your ventilation system.
These rat-to-human infections aren’t merely a horrific possibility, they are a reality…
Making the problem worse in urban areas are dogs…well, their poop, that is.  Rats, as it turns out, consider dog waste a delicacy…
That was Victoria Thomas’ problem. Seven dogs lived in the neighboring building in her tony Lake View neighborhood. The backyard became an all-you-can-eat buffet for rats, causing the vermin to spill over into her own condo’s backyard. The many restaurants in the area didn’t help either.
At one point, exterminators found 400 rats in her yard.
“I called the city, I mean every day, they knew me by name,” Thomas said.
Thomas tried everything: traps, cinnamon rolls laced with poison, trenches. Even chicken wire was no match for the invading rats. She spent about $4,000 trying to control them, but nothing worked. “There were just babies all the time,” Thomas said.
Desperate, she put in another call. She skipped City Hall this time and instead dialed the Tree House Humane Society
Tree House became the country’s first cageless, no kill, cat shelter in 1971, but today it may be better known for its innovative approach to rat control.
Most of the animals they rescue are highly adoptable, but some wild cats will never make a good pet. In the past the city’s animal control would have to kill those cats. A 2007 ordinance changed that practice. The Managed Care of Feral Cats act allowed animal organizations like Tree House to trap, neuter and return them to their home turf.
Tree House now manages 650 colonies with 3,600 cats. For a select few, even this is not an option, due to threats in their original territory. For them, Tree House came up with an idea.
They put those cats to work.

Cats, the world’s first pest control

Cats have worked as the world’s fuzzy exterminators for at least 10,000 years. That’s when wild cats cozied up to the Natufians, the first human farmers who stored grain, which attracted rodents.
Agile and nocturnal, cats need little light to hunt. With rodents most active at night, cats became their perfect nemesis.
Cats have worked as rat catchers in New York bodegas, Disneyland and ships during World War II. They’ve even protected the prime minister at number 10 Downing Street, although Larry the cat is described as a terrible mouser.
Even cats you costume for internet videos or holiday cards maintain that hunter instinct.
Knowing this history, Tree House organizers started the Cats at Work project five years ago. It transplants these colonies to areas that need their kind of help.
Paul Nickerson, who manages the program, became one of its early customers after construction workers demolished a factory across the alley from his home.
“Hundreds of rats set up shop under decks in our backyard,” Nickerson said. “I couldn’t even bring my garbage out after sundown, because the rats would just run over your feet.”
Nickerson called Tree House, which agreed to give him a colony. His cats have kept his yard rat-free for years…

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