Richard Stoike’s family has owned his home in Queens, New York for decades, and for as long as he can remember, mice have been a problem. When winter arrives, they like to head to his house to escape the cold.
Stoike’s solution: Always have at least one “working cat” — a feral cat that has been spayed or neutered and isn’t a good candidate to be a pet because it hasn’t been socialized to live with humans. Perhaps it has lived outdoors for most of its life.
Unlike a pet or house cat that would live indoors, use a litter box and even snuggle with its owner on a couch, most working cats are fine with their outdoor life and prefer it that way.
They hang around and take care of mice for homeowners.
“I tell the neighbors how important they are,” Stoike said.
The standard of care for feral cats is known as trap-neuter-return (TNR), which entails humanely trapping the cat, sterilizing it, and returning it to where it was found.
Animal rescue groups have created working-cat programs wherein homeowners or store owners agree to provide the cats with shelter, food, water and medical care — promising to take care of it like any other pet — in exchange for an added line of defense against vermin.
“Even though there’s absolutely no guarantee they will get any and all rodents, it often works out that way. The cat gets a home and the business or owner gets reduced or no rodents,” said Jesse Oldham, a community cat expert for the Animal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “We’ve also seen a lot of people also just like cats. It’s nice having them around, even if they’re not particularly social.”
Working cats in businesses have become a familiar concept. Bodega cats have attained internet cult status. The cats of Disneyland have their own Instagram account too.
Working cats have long been used in rural settings, and can have a place in residential areas as well.
Stoike has a garage where he keeps his working cat. A basement or shed will also suffice.
“It’s treated as a real adoption,” said Kathleen O’Malley, director of education for the NYC Feral Cat Initiative. “We’re not just giving away feral cats to people who may not feed them.”
O’Malley estimated between their program, other animal welfare groups and private veterinarians, about 1,000 feral cats are found and processed every month in New York City.
The cats are spayed or neutered, given a rabies vaccine, and their ears are tipped — a tiny sliver of the top of the cat’s ear is removed, using anesthesia, by making a straight cut with a scalpel — a signal the cat has already been altered.
Most often, the cats are returned to their environment.
Sometimes, though, that home has disappeared. Maybe it was a vacant lot that is being developed, or an abandoned building that has been demolished.
“Relocation of cats is an absolute last resort, but if there’s a neighbor conflict or if there’s a real estate issue, we try to either fix it so the cats can stay or move them across the street or down the block,” O’Malley said. “That being said, it’s New York City. Sometimes a cat’s territory will no longer exist in a few months because their empty lot is going to be built on every inch, and there’s no place down the street where they can be moved.”
Stoike’s new working cat is a calico named Lola who was “brought off the street by a well-meaning but misguided individual who then left it behind in her apartment when she moved out,” said O’Malley, who paired Stoike with Lola.
“This poor cat would be basically living on the street and sidewalk and concrete front yard of neighbors in Queens,” she said.
Stoike is already the caretaker for a feral cat colony near his property, so adding a working cat in his garage wasn’t that big a deal.
He does consider working cats like any other pet. He feeds them, talks to them and allows them in his garage, where he puts a heating pad in winter.
Sometimes they leave “gifts” of mice on his doorstep.
“When they pass away,” he said, “it’s like a family member almost.”