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Feral cats tackle rodent population through county program

Ragnar the cat patrols the grounds at Camp Pollock in Sacramento on Thursday, July 30, 2015. There is a program through the county that gives free barn cats (feral cats that have been vaccinated and spayed/neutered) to people to maintain the rodent population at their businesses or homes.
Ragnar the cat patrols the grounds at Camp Pollock in Sacramento on Thursday, July 30, 2015. There is a program through the county that gives free barn cats (feral cats that have been vaccinated and spayed/neutered) to people to maintain the rodent population at their businesses or homes. rbenton@sacbee.com

Ragnar and Alice are the keepers of Camp Pollock. They patrol the grounds, track down rodents at dusk and relax in patchy grass underneath trees during the day.

They are affectionate with their owners, Elizabeth and Matt Gaylord, but these feral cats are considered unadoptable. They were given a new home through Sacramento County’s Bradshaw Animal Shelter, which offers free feral cats, spayed/neutered, vaccinated and micro-chipped, to businesses, barns, families and farms with rodent issues.

It’s a great way for families to save money on wiring repairs and harmful rodent killers, as well as save the lives of cats who might otherwise be euthanized, said shelter spokeswoman Kimberly Nava.

“I’d say since 2012, we’ve saved probably 250-350 of the cats’ lives,” Nava said. “They can continue living their lives and be productive members of society when they are keeping down the rodent population, which is chewing wires in homes, spreading diseases (and) ruining (people’s) livelihood.”

When the cats begin to trust the people, they develop a good relationship.

Kimberly Nava, Sacramento County’s Bradshaw Animal Shelter

There are 30 million to 40 million homeless cats – strays who used to be domesticated and ferals who were born and raised in the wild – in the U.S., according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that almost half of feral cats die before their first year from exposure to diseases, parasites, outdoor conditions and attacks.

Feral cats are not used to human contact; they want to be outdoors and no amount of socializing will make them a house cat, Nava said. But the cats don’t always remain shy or aloof.

“When the cats begin to trust the people, they develop a good relationship,” Nava said. “They can pick up the cat and cuddle the cat.”

Ragnar and Alice will follow the Gaylords when they work on projects at Camp Pollock, where Matt is the property manager. While Alice is still pretty shy, Ragnar, whose namesake is the infamous pirate of the Ayn Rand novel “Atlas Shrugged,” is indistinguishable from a domesticated cat that likes to roam outdoors. When Elizabeth is around, he’ll mewl at her in a raspy tone and prance over to be showered with affection and even sit on his hind legs to be petted.

“I don’t know how normal it is, but our two are very personable,” Gaylord said. “They really aren’t much different to us than our normal indoor cats. Very affectionate … really sweet, easy-to-handle cats.”

And they have done a good job of getting rid of rodents, Gaylord said. The historic Boy Scouts camp, now run by the Sacramento Valley Conservancy, doesn’t have a problem with mice in its sheds anymore, and electrical wires are no longer being gnawed. The couple bought humane traps for the rodents before they got Ragnar and Alice last November. But the traps were not effective in getting rid of the problem.

While cats offer an effective way to control rodent population, not everyone supports the idea of maintaining a large, outdoor feline population. Birding groups have for many years complained that the large number of abandoned house cats and feral cats in California’s parks and open space areas threaten native species.

While cats offer an effective way to control rodent population, not everyone supports the idea of maintaining a large, outdoor feline population. Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at UC Davis, said barn cat programs, which are part of many shelters across the U.S., need to be used with caution.

“It’s an interesting process and they can be pretty effective at containing some of the pest situation,” he said. “(But) they also have a very negative impact on some of the native wildlife, particularly bird species.”

Birding groups have for many years complained that the large number of abandoned house cats and feral cats in California’s parks and open space areas threaten native species. Scientists at the California Academy of Sciences have said feral cats are partly responsible for the near-total disappearance of California quail – the state bird – from Golden Gate Park. And a 2013 report funded by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that domestic cats and strays kill a median 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion mammals a year, many of them native species like shrews, chipmunks and voles rather than mice and rats.

Ashiah Scharaga: 916-321-1673, @AshiahD

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