Feral cats get a second life as rodent-hunting 'barn cats'

08/31/2013 12:00 AM

08/31/2013 2:50 PM

They are not the cuddliest of creatures. They are tough, surly and even less tolerant of humans than your average feline.

For all those reasons, feral cats that wind up in animal shelters typically have been deemed unadoptable, earning them quick trips to death row.

But their fates are changing, thanks to new programs in the Sacramento region and across the country.

Cats once dismissed as wild now are being sterilized, vaccinated and placed for adoption as "working cats" or "barn cats" on farms, ranches and other places where they can help rid their new homes of rats, mice and other pests.

"It's natural rodent control," said Zeke Holst, a spokesman for Sacramento County's Department of Animal Care and Regulation.

People who qualify to adopt "barn cats" from the county can take them home for free, Holst said, as long as they pledge to feed, water and otherwise care for them.

Yolo County's animal shelter, among others in the region, sponsors a similar program in cooperation with the local SPCA.

The programs are part of an effort by groups across America to reduce the number of animals that must be put to death at shelters for lack of space or because of behavioral problems.

The Humane Society in Colorado Springs, Colo., has its "Blue Collar Barn Cat" program. Central Texas offers "Barn Cat Buddies." In King County, Washington, the program is known as "Barn Cats R Us."

In the city of Sacramento, the Front Street animal shelter is tackling the same problem with a slightly different approach.

"We don't have a lot of barns in the city," shelter manager Gina Knepp pointed out. But Sacramento has an abundance of feral cats.

So, for the past year, the shelter has been sterilizing, vaccinating and releasing feral cats to a local rescue group. The group then returns them to the locations from which they came, barring complaints from residents of the areas, Knepp said.

The pilot program, funded by the ASPCA, has saved nearly 700 cats that otherwise would have been put to death, Knepp said.

Sacramento County animal shelter director Dave Dickinson said its "barn cat" program has been embraced by property owners who are reluctant to use traps or poisons to deal with rats and other pests.

"They want a cat that's going to work on their property, and on any given day we have one," Dickinson said.

The county has been promoting the program in community newspapers and on its website since last fall, said Dickinson. So far, 62 "barn cats" have been placed on rural properties where they patrol barns, stables and other outdoor structures.

"We haven't had any of them returned to us because they weren't working out, so that's a good sign," said Dickinson.

Anyone interested in the program can request information through the shelter. Volunteers will conduct "property checks" to make sure the cats will fit in, and adopters get a quick course in how to care for the felines.

"We're always interested in finding new ways of getting animals out of our shelter alive," said Dickinson.

"Not every cat is the perfect pet or the perfect indoor animal. But these cats are ready to go to work and earn their keep."

For information about the Sacramento County Barn Cat program, visit the shelter at 3839 Bradshaw Road during regular hours or go to www.SacCounty Shelter.net.

For information about the Yolo County program, contact the Yolo County SPCA at (530) 662-8858.

Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @cynthia_hubert.

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