At Oakland Animal Services, volunteers are busy walking dogs, petting cats and caring for the other animals up for adoption. Customers pour into the lobby trying to drop off found animals or find a new best friend. At first glance, everything seems standard for an animal shelter, but the back parking lot reveals something innovative.
The lot is vacant with the exception of two cars and some bowls filled with food and water. But upon closer inspection, feral cats of all kinds are hiding under the cars, in trees, and on the gates. These aren’t just any cats; they are working cats.
These once feral felines—stray cats that prefer to avoid human interaction—have only one job at the shelter: to keep rodents out, permanently.
Volunteers at Oakland Animal Services are starting a new working cats program to both boost cat adoptions and help control rodents in homes and businesses around the Bay Area. These cats are supposed to hunt rodents and scare off other cats from around their new homes. They’ll be vaccinated, spayed or neutered, microchipped and flea treated. Once adopted, they are meant to live outside with minimal care from their owners.
“It’s an ecological approach to pest control,” said Martha Cline, Oakland Animal Services’ animal placement coordinator and creator of the program. She says the main concept of the program is not only “saving cat’s lives, but actually placing them where people want them.”
According to Cline, the shelter’s staff decided to explore this new program because there were too many feral cats coming in that could not be given homes fast enough. Like many shelters, Oakland’s relies on other agencies, like the Tenth Life Foundation, to place the cats in a new home. But Tenth Life serves most of the Bay Area, which means that they have too many cats and not enough foster homes.
“They work with all of the shelters in the area, because we are not the only ones with the issue,” she said. “So they can’t really resolve our issues of having 30 feral cats and semi-feral cats.”
After deciding to start a working cats program, volunteers had to get funding and training. Maddie’s Fund—a multimillion-dollar foundation that supports animal welfare agencies and shelters—paid for Cline to go to Texas and observe a successful similar program. “They basically financed me to go out there for a week to learn how their program is set up, to see what things might be usable, to vet the program itself, to give feedback, and then to give us some tools to set up our own,” Cline said.
This initiative is different from other feral cat programs because it makes sure the animal has a home. The community cat program used by many shelters returns each animal to where it was found after it has been given all of the appropriate shots, neutered and flea treated. The goal of this kind of program is to reduce the number of feral cats that are born, but it doesn’t focus locating a new home for the cats after treatment.
According to Rebecca Katz, Oakland Animal Services director, putting the cat back in the same environment fails to consider other issues, like how people in the area feel about feral cats. “We also have a public health and public safety responsibility, as well, and many people don’t want cats—or an overabundance of cats—in their neighborhood,” she said.
Only feral cats are considered for the new working cats program, because they prefer to avoid human contact and would not make good house pets. But before a cat can be considered “workable,” there are several tests it must go through. Each cat is placed in a cage with a clear box and put in room filled with other caged feral and domestic cats. If the cat stays in the box as much as possible and hides from humans even when food is present, then it could be feral. Volunteers also perform eye and play tests on the cats to see how often they blink and if they’re playful. Cats that keep a constant gaze and are aggressive are likely feral, too.
Volunteers sometimes try to get the cat to play with a toy, pen or anything that may amuse a domestic cat, to see if it will grab at or mess around with the object.
“I’ve had many a pen thrown across the room by a feral that said, ‘Get that thing out of my way,’ and didn’t like the interaction,” Cline said.
Once the cat is fully vetted, it is ready to be sent to a home. These cats are implanted with microchips, so they can be tracked if they leave their new home, and fixed so they can’t produce any feral kittens. Also, working cats get an ear tipped—a vet removes a small piece of one ear—to indicate that the cat is no longer feral but “working.”
According to Katz, since these cats are extremely social with others of their kind, the program gives them out in twos.
Though adopting working cats is free, potential owners must go through a detailed process before getting one. After completing an online application, volunteers research the location of the applicant’s house to make sure the area is good for a feral cat. Ideal places are wide-open areas such as wineries or warehouses. The person is then interviewed about why they want a working cat and, if approved, they receive guidelines on taking care of one.
Though these cats don’t need any training, owners must put out food and water every day for their cat, so it will continue to come back. According to Katz, working cats will not return if they can get a constant supply of food elsewhere. “Not everybody recognizes that feral cats are cats, and they need care just like any other animal,” she said.
The Oakland Working Cats program is one of many programs that aim to move animals through the shelter quickly, in hopes of finding them homes faster. According to Cline, this allows volunteers to focus on the animals that need more attention.
Some other programs that have the same goal are the foster and transfer programs. The foster program allows animals to go to a temporary foster home, so they can enjoy life outside of the shelter and get exposure to potential adopting families. The transfer program allows animals to be transferred to another shelter in a different city or state, which may increase their adoption chances.
Animal lover Robert Baker owns nine cats and is an advocate of the new program. He and his wife often come to Oakland’s animal shelter and like to look at the animals while they wait to be helped by the staff. He doesn’t plan on getting any more cats, but thinks it’s for a good cause. “You’re giving these cats a home and it’s like a dual purpose, you know—they’re taking care of you and you’re taking care of them,” he said.
According to Cline, the program has been active for three months and they have received about seven applications from potential working cat adopters from all over the Bay Area, in both rural and urban neighborhoods. But so far, no working cats have left Oakland Animal Services. The staff wants to make sure each cat will go to the best place possible before sending them.
“We want to make sure it’s successful for the cat, and successful for the people who are adopting the cats,” Cline said.