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'Cats at Work' program helping Chicago residents - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

'Cats at Work' program helping Chicago residents

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Cats guard stock at Empirical Brewing in Chicago. (Venkman the Cat Twitter page) Cats guard stock at Empirical Brewing in Chicago. (Venkman the Cat Twitter page)
CHICAGO -

Nevin McCown knows he works a job most guys would envy, so as head brewer at Empirical Brewing, he never minded staying late to close up shop, with one exception.

He'd turn off the equipment in the cavernous warehouse in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood. He'd be packing up his gear when he'd inevitably look up and realize he had an unwanted guest.

"There'd be this foot-tall rat just sitting there, staring up at you with it's face asking, 'Are you leaving yet? I'm hungry. Can't you just leave already?'" McCown said with a shiver.

Empirical Brewing wasn't the only Chicago establishment praying for better pest control. For a couple of years in a row, pest control giant Orkin playfully named Chicago the "rattiest" city in the country. 

So far in 2016, rat complaints are up 67 percent from last year.

Rats, in addition to being, well, "icky," 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.

"Rats are a highly capable sponge for disease," said Dr. Chelsea Himsworth, who studies vermin of Vancouver. "They can go into any environment, absorb all of what is dangerous and bring it back to the people."

One Lake View resident, Victoria Thomas, fed up after finding 400 rats in her yard, skipped City Hall and called the Treehouse Humane Society.

Treehouse became the country's first cageless, no kill cat shelter in 1971. 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

"Our Cats at Work program relocates cats that are truly in need," said Liz Houtz of the Treehouse Humane Society. "[Cats] that are feral, that aren't really appropriate candidates to come into an adoption center. The side benefit, we found, is in providing environmentally friendly rodent control for people."

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 Treehouse to trap, neuter and return them to their home turf.

Treehouse now manages 650 colonies with 3,600 cats. For a select few, returning to a home is not an option, due to threats in their original territory. For them, Treehouse came up with an idea.

They put those cats to work.

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.

Knowing this history, Treehouse 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 Treehouse, which agreed to give him a colony. His cats have kept his yard rat-free for years.

The organization doesn't merely drop the cats off in a new neighborhood.

"The cats would honestly have no reason to stay, they don't know the area," said Liz Houtz the Community Cats Program manager. Instead they acclimate the cats, using giant dog crates turned cushy "kitty apartments," with a litter box, scratching post, toys and shelter to protect them from the rain, until they feel at home.

It takes about four weeks for the cats to get used to each other and to their new territory's sounds and smells. The colony's caretaker agrees to feed them twice daily and provide shelter and vet care as necessary.

Cats may eat rats, but they also deter rats from coming near by, as cats mark their territory, not with urine, but by simply rubbing up against things. Even this scent of a cat can make rats scatter.

When the cats are put in place, they'll kill off a lot of the rat population, "the other rats will get a whiff of (the cats') pheromones and bug out and leave the area," Nickerson said.

"As far as rodent control goes, it's nearly 100 percent effective," Houtz said. "It's the only long-term, permanent solution there is."

"I call it cracking 'The Da Vinci Code' of the rat problem," Nickerson said.

A three-cat placement costs about $600. To Victoria Thomas, cats Patch, Fluffy, and Skinnerina are worth every penny

Over at Empirical Brewery, the rats have now left the building.

They got four "adorable monsters" about a year and a half ago.

The brewery had an online contest to name them, picking names from the original "Ghostbuster"s movie: Egon, Venkman and Raymond. They are the perfect guardians for the grain.

Gozer, a tiny female cat, was named after the villain at the end of the movie. Despite her small size, the guys know she'd be a match even for the giant rat.

"We call her Gozer, the destroyer of hearts, because she's just a cutie pie," McCown said.

Before the brewery got its colony, the rats bit holes into their grain bags. Staff had to toss 200 pounds worth of malt over the year. They haven't lost a grain since the cats came.

Now, cat toys litter the floor and the team has built them a shelter several stories tall nicknamed the Dark Tower, complete with shelves, windows and a door. It's a prominent feature on the brewery tour, with some visitors confessing they came specifically to see the cats.

Venkman even has his own Twitter followers.

"They provide us with a lot of comfort and fun during the work days," McCown said. "And they keep my grain safe."

Previously, many feral cats were euthanized. These days, hardly any are killed because the cats have somewhere to go.

"I've placed 160 cats so far this year, and I know that I had a hand in saving 160 lives that most certainly would have been put down," said Paul Nickerson of the Treehouse Humane Society. "It's just such a rewarding feeling and experience."

Those involved with helping to place these cats aren't the only ones benefiting from the project. "It's the cat that are the real winners in this program," Nickerson said.

And many would argue, it's the city that wins, too.

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