By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker
Cats that hiss, bite and swat at humans aren’t typically the first ones chosen for adoption at animal shelters. It doesn’t mean they’re “bad” cats; in many such instances, previously feral or outdoor cats now locked in a cage may become ornery because they’re not used to being around people and they can’t carry out their natural behaviors.
Many such cats don’t ever get the chance for adoption, being labeled as unadoptable and put down instead — but working cat programs popping up in animal shelters across the U.S. are starting to change that.
Philadelphia's Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT Philly) is among those that have a working cat (also known as a barn cat) program. Referred to as an “alternative placement program,” it matches cats with behavioral challenges with nontraditional homes, such as working farms, barn buildings and many others.
Unlike a typical barn cat, which lives mostly outdoors, working cats are provided shelter indoors, food, water and medical care by its adopters, in exchange for the cat providing a needed service, usually eliminating pests from an area. To date, working cats have been placed in feed stores, plant nurseries, warehouses, factories, workshops, breweries, churches, artist studios and offices, according to ACCT Philly.1
Working Cats Are Free of Charge, but Their Benefits Are Priceless
Cats are placed into the working cat program if they have issues that would make it nearly impossible to place them in a traditional home. Lack of socialization, very high energy and nonmedical-related litter box issues are examples. Cats that are having trouble adjusting to indoor life may also make good working cat candidates.
“Finding placement for these cats is a challenge,” ACCT Philly explained. “In response to this problem, the ACCT Philly Lifesaving Department has developed a program that places these cats in safe and loving alternative homes. While not a typical adoption, the program gives them what they want and need; safe and sheltered forever homes with limited human interaction.”2
No adoption fee is required to adopt a working cat, but adopters must fill out an application questionnaire and be properly matched with a cat that fits the space and “job” available. U.S. News & World Report shared the story of Jordan Fetfatzes, who owns Bella Vista Beer Distributors:3
“[Mi]ce were gnawing on bags of chips overnight, leaving a mess and forcing staffers to throw out about 15 bags a day, owner Jordan Fetfatzes said. They tried exterminators, but nothing worked. An employee found ACCT's program online, and Fetfatzes eventually decided on Gary, a white male with one blue eye and one green that had ‘behavioral issues.’
Gary wasn't accustomed to people and would hiss from the crate. At first, Gary would stay in the office and would only go into the warehouse after hours. As the weeks passed, he warmed up to workers and customers, and has transformed into a sweet, playful mascot with free rein of the store … As for the mice, they vanished, seemingly repelled by Gary's scent, Fetfatzes said.”
A New ‘Niche’ for Cat Adoptions
Katie Lisnik, director of cat protection and policy for the Humane Society of the United States, noted that working cat programs are catching on nationwide and fill a niche in cat adoptions.4 There are shelters for friendly cats and nonprofit organizations that care for feral cats, but the cats in between — not feral but not adoptable — often face the hardest road. Working cat programs can now be found across the U.S. from Arizona to Missouri to Pennsylvania and beyond.
Animal Humane Society (AHS), a Minnesota-based organization with shelters in five locations, also developed a working cat program to provide hope for healthy cats that are not candidates for adoption. AHS charges no adoption fee for working cats other than a $20 administrative fee, but suggests the cats work best when adopted in groups of two or three. Potential adopters must agree to provide:5
- A warm, safe shelter like a barn or shop so cats are protected from the elements
- Food and clean water every day
- Medical care when necessary
- A way to keep the cats contained for two to three weeks while they become acclimated to their new surroundings
ACCT Philly also requires adopters to keep their newly adopted worker cats in an extra-large dog crate or other enclosed space on property for two weeks while she becomes acclimated. This is important because allowing the cats to roam too soon may give them a chance to leave before they realize their new home provides shelter and regular food and water. After two to three weeks, the cats can be released to roam freely and will typically return to their new home.
Ornery Cats Turned Into Lovable Friends
Many participants in the worker cat program have been pleasantly surprised by their cat’s success on the job. After all, ACCT spokeswoman Ame Dorminy told U.S. News & World Report, "Part of the reason cats became domesticated was to get rid of the rodent population.”6 However, one of the most unexpected results is that cats that were once skittish and uninterested in being around people have turned into new friends.
In Gary’s case, a cat who once lashed out at anyone who came too close, after coming to live at the brewery he’s turned into a different cat. “Neighborhood kids come in just to say hi to him, and he loves to play soccer with a worker who balls up cash register tape and kicks it around as Gary bats at it.”7 He’s even had an impact on the business’ owner, once a dog person who says he’s now a cat lover as well.8
If you’re interested in adopting a working cat for your business or other suitable space, contact your local humane society and ask whether such cats are available. You’ll not only be saving the life of an animal in need but gaining a new friend in the process.