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Feral cats become blue collar workers in Washington D.C.

A feral cat hides in a wooded area near a beach parking lot. (Frank Eltman/AP)
A feral cat hides in a wooded area near a beach parking lot. (Frank Eltman/AP)

Some feral cats in Washington, D.C. recently got a new gig: Rat control.

The Humane Rescue Alliance, or HRA, set out to rehome feral cats that shelters couldn’t take care of. Though it started as just a rehoming initiative, participants noticed that these outdoor cats deterred pests like rats. And the program is now officially called Blue Collar Cats.

“My neighborhood, like many neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., has rats that run around the garbage pails and out in front of the street,” says Washington Post reporter John Hudson. “It’s an unpleasant situation for if you have guests coming into your home, they’re going to dodge rats.”

Hudson adopted a 7-year-old Blue Collar Cat named Mrs. Rutherford. Mrs. Rutherford was set to be euthanized by a local shelter but gained a second lease on life through the program. And according to Hudson, Mrs. Rutherford is incredibly effective in slaying rats.

Because the cats in the program are feral and used to living outside, they typically cannot be brought inside by their new human companion. When someone applies for a Blue Collar Cat, they must purchase a dog crate to keep the cat in for the first six weeks. Throughout that time, the new owner brings food and water to the cat daily, building up familiarity and trust that the cat will be cared for. After six weeks, the cat is let out and will instinctually return to the house after acclimating.

How do they know to come back? Cats are smart, says Maureen Sosa, HRA’s director of pet support. And the goal isn’t to domesticate them, just to move them to a location where they’ll be looked after and be useful.

John Hudson poses with his feral cat, Mrs. Rutherford. (Courtesy of John Hudson)

“They know who their caretaker is,” Sosa says. “Animals, when they’re getting their basic needs met, will stay in a specific area… Most of the time when they drift is when they’re looking for those basic things.”

Hudson says he isn’t a pet person and didn’t grow up with cats in the house. But curbing the rat population intrigued him and prompted him to opt in for a cleaner D.C.

“Istanbul is this massive city, this beautiful city in Turkey, that has cats everywhere,” Hudson says. “It’s so clean and the reason it’s clean is because you have cats taking care of the rodents. That seemed like an amazing solution here.”

Because Hudson travels often for work, he says he doesn’t have much time for traditional pet care. But since Mrs. Rutherford lives outside, he built her a cat house, brings her a can of food daily and sets up an automatic feeder for when he’s away. Plus, his neighbors look out for her as well, since they’ve noticed the benefit of having her in the neighborhood.

Even when cats don’t kill rodents, their presence in the yard alone can deter pests from the area.

“Once they’ve settled in and that’s kind of their area, the rats are not interested in going into that area,” Sosa says. “Some cats obviously have a higher prey drive than others, but definitely them just kind of living and owning that space helps keep the population down.”

She’s a hit in the whole neighborhood, and Hudson says he and the cat have developed a rapport. But even though Mrs. Rutherford relies on Hudson for food and water and meows at him when she’s hungry, she hasn’t totally warmed up to him. She doesn’t let him get too close to her, and any time he’s tried to pet her, he’s met with a hiss.

“As soon as I met Mrs. Rutherford, I could tell this is a street-brawling cat. She’s got a chipped tooth. She has seen some difficult days,” he says. “I would love it to be more of a loving relationship… But that’s her demeanor. And I’m not out to change her.”

Thomas Danielian produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtGrace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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