In a large brick warehouse east of Los Angeles, Richard Medina hired a pair of guards to keep intruders from pillaging the pallets of gourmet drinks and snacks that were stored there.
They were lazy from the start, and one even ran off. But the one that remained, a feline with the utilitarian name of "Black Cat," is getting the job done: protecting Los Angeles Distributing Company from rodents.
Black Cat is one of many neutered feral cats that "no-kill" shelters are giving to businesses and individuals to help control pests, and to spare the felines' lives. They are not considered pets, but rather “working cats.”
Medina, who helped found the food and beverage distributor, received his animals through a working cat program at the Los Angeles shelter of the Best Friends Animal Society. The organization, based in Kanab, Utah, is trying to end unnecessary pet euthanasia. “We’re guided by a desire to make this a country where that doesn’t happen anymore,” said Gregory Castle, CEO of Best Friends.
So far, the program has placed 75 cats since starting last year. And it's happening elsewhere around the country:
St. Paul. At the Animal Humane Society in greater Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Barn and Business Cat program has placed 336 of the animals since the initiative began in January 2015, says shelter spokesman Zach Nugent.
Baltimore. In Maryland's Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, Amber Ketchum has found homes for 54 cats since December 2016, from urban warehouses and breweries to rural horse farms and a vineyard.
Phoenix. The Arizona Humane Society has saved 730 cats from euthanasia since January 2014, says shelter spokeswoman Bretta Nelson — mostly those with behavioral issues that prevent them from living indoors.
But placing cats in businesses is only a dent in the problem of unwanted pets.
Though the number of animals euthanized in shelters has been decreasing, about 860,000 cats are still killed each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Many city shelters simply don’t have space to house them and many are too wild to make good house pets.
That’s where working cats programs come in – as a last-chance solution. Many cities have programs that trap, neuter and release feral cats to prevent them from reproducing while keeping them on their home turf. But in some areas, that’s either impossible or illegal, and working cat programs are the only alternative to euthanasia.
“There has to be a place in society for these cats,” says Melya Kaplan, the founder of the Voice For The Animals Foundation in Los Angeles. “They have no other option.”
Typically, working cats start out living on the streets, where they learn to fear human contact, says Marc Peralta, who runs Best Friends’ Los Angeles shelter. Some are captured by animal control officers and brought to shelters run by the city — which is where Best Friends gets the majority of its working cats.
“It’s a different way to save their lives,” Peralta said. His organization keeps around 50 cats at a time in an open-air enclosure a short walk away from Best Friends’ main adoption area. There, after being spayed or neutered so they can no longer breed, they receive food, shelter and medical attention until someone decides to adopt them.
If they start working, the cats don't have to actively seek out rats or mice. Medina, for instance, said his warehouse has never had a rodent problem. Rodents stay away when they pick up the scent of a cat.
Besides businesses, the program has placed cats with individuals who need rodent control in more rural areas.
Brittany Sorgenstein, a 35-year-old resident of Santa Clarita, Calif. raises turkeys, goats and a rabbit on a 2.5-acre parcel of land that includes a barn and a pasture, less than an hour away from downtown Los Angeles. She says that for five years, she could not get rid of the rats, which ate the food she stored for her animals.
Sorgenstein says she was hesitant to use solutions like poison or rat traps that she saw as cruel. Through her work at the Best Friends Animal Society – where she is a dog caretaker – she found out about the working cat adoption program and decided to give it a try. In May of last year, she adopted two cats, Bonnie and Clyde.
It's not always perfect. They may occasionally kill birds or other wildlife, which is why some environmental activists are against releasing feral cats back into society, says Rebekah DeHaven, an attorney for the animal rights organization Alley Cat Allies. But she added that most communities don’t see feral cats as a large problem if they are fixed and disease-free.
“People would rather leave cats in their outdoor homes than have them brought to a shelter and killed,” DeHaven said. “It’s not a politically viable option.”