Stray cats go to work in breweries and barns

When rats move into barns, breweries or backyards, there’s really no easy or pleasant way to get rid of them. Rats get sleek and shiny on a diet of grain stored to feed horses or make beer. Food scraps put out in garbage cans are magnets for rats and mice. 

Poison put out to kill rodents can be a threat to people, pets and the environment. 

Cats are the “green,” environmentally safe solution, and “hiring” cats to kill rodents is slowly gaining in popularity, especially in Chicago.

In an ideal world, all cats would have safe, loving indoor home with people. Those known as stray cats, feral cats or community cats generally don’t like or appreciate the company of people, and enjoy living and hunting outdoors. 

In recent years local shelters and rescues have placed a small number of “working” cats, mostly in horse barns and a few in warehouses. Those organizations include Humane Animal Rescue, Animal Friends, Homeless Cat Management Team and Nose 2 Tail Cat Rescue.

The Tree House Humane Society’s “Cats at Work” program has placed more than 800 cats since 2012. The Chicago shelter sends them to barns, condo buildings, factories, warehouses and breweries, according to its website,

Tree House cats — and working cats in local programs — have all been spayed, neutered and inoculated against diseases. People who “hire” them are required to give the cats shelter, food and veterinary care for the rest of their lives. 

I was surprised to learn that most of the requests for Tree House working cats are for the backyards of city and suburban homes. Around here, neighbors often complain about the community cat colonies managed by cat lovers. Many local communities have ordinances that prohibit people from feeding outdoor cats, and officials in some towns have threatened to trap and kill colonies of outdoor cats.

“Chicago has a big rat problem” that feeds a desire for working cats, said Darlene Duggan, director of operations at Tree House. And, since 2007, Cook County has an ordinance that makes it legal to care for feral cats.

“We struggled with rats for many years at our home,” wrote Anne E. Beall on the Tree House website. “One night a rat ran over my husband’s foot, and we decided that we had had enough.”

She said the colony they adopted and call The Rat Pack “immediately started clearing them out.” Within a few weeks, all of the rats had been killed, and new ones have not moved in.

Her neighbors say the cats are doing a good job, reports Ms. Beall, who founded a market research firm in downtown Chicago.  The book she wrote about her experience, “Community Cats: A Journey Into the World of Feral Cats,” is available on Amazon. 

A working colony must have at least three cats, and they must be fed and confined in large crates for four weeks, Ms. Duggan explained. When they are turned loose to hunt rodents, they usually come back to the sites where food is put out for them every day. 

The same procedure is followed by local shelters and rescues.

They usually do not eat the rats and mice that they kill, she added.

Animal Friends in Ohio Township has placed about 21 felines in their “Working Cats” program  since 2013, mostly in horse barns, said Beth Mauder, an adoption counselor for 25 years.

“These are the guys that don’t acclimate to a house” despite extensive efforts to socialize them, Ms. Mauder said. “I think the cats we place are very happy.“

Ten cats in recent years have gotten work assignments from Humane Animal Rescue, now in Homewood. 

“If you love cats and can’t have them in the house because of allergies,” you might consider a working cat, said Janice Barnard, director of intake and behavior at HAR.

Homeless Cat Management Team has moved about 25 cats to horse farms this year, said Margo Cicci Wisniewski. It’s a last resort solution, such as the 15 cats relocated from Jefferson Hills, where officials were threatening to have them killed.

“I grew up with horses” said Ms. Wisniewski, who has found that people who keep horses are animal lovers who are often open to using rescued cats to deal with rodent problems. 

It’s generally easier to find indoor homes for sociable cats than it is to find barn homes for working cats, she added.

Nose 2 Tail Cat Rescue in Washington County has placed more than 60 working cats in the last year or two, said Geneva Lester.

Last fall, they took in over 50 cats from McKees Rocks, and with the help of another group, Frankie’s Friends, spayed or neutered all of them. Most went to farms. 

Ms. Lester said they would place more if they had more funding. 

Fifteen cats work at the Sprague Farm & Brew Works in Venango, Crawford County, where they are popular with customers and visitors, said Minnie Sprague. 

She and her husband, Brian, grow about 10 percent of the grain they need to brew their beer, and the cats make short work of the rats and mice attracted by the operation.

Most of the cats have been dropped off at their farm, she said. “We’ve picked up others in the road and brought them home.”

Their cats, some acquired as kittens, are friendly and like people, she said.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.