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Multnomah County shelter dispatches rat-catching cats into homes and businesses

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Wendell, a grey tabby cat, is looking for work as a rat catcher, the Multnomah County Animal Shelter in Troutdale reports. Got rats?

If you do, the solution might be Kitties for Hire, a freshly-revamped program by the Multnomah County Animal Shelter in Troutdale.

First established four years ago, the program places street-smart cats in homes and businesses with vermin infestations.

Recent placements have sent strays everywhere from rural horse stables to mechanic garages, warehouses and urban farms, as well as traditional older homes with big backyards.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Feline Care Specialist Karen McGill cares for Piper, a skittish cat that would feel more comfortable hunting vermin outdoors. "You don't have to own a barn to have a barn cat anymore," explains shelter spokes-man Jay Levitre.

Every year, Kitties for Hire finds a new home for roughly 50 to 60 cats that are typically semi feral with less experience interacting with humans.

The program was rebranded roughly six months ago, after the county started receiving cease-and-desist letters from a shelter in California that had trademarked the previous title, "Working Kitties."

It was a good opportunity to re-do the program with a new title that highlights the "industrious" nature of these felines, said Feline Care Specialist Karen McGill.

"Mouser just sounded disingenuous, because it's really a rat problem that we have in Portland," McGill notes. "We really want to be careful (with) matching the cat with the proper location."

"Hiring" a working kitty isn't too different from the normal adoption process. The main difference is that all fees are waived.

At the shelter, the worker cats are vaccinated, tagged with tracking microchips and spayed or neutered. The new owner is expected to provide a regular source of food, water and shelter to their cat.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - If a cat bites anyone at the shelter, the law requires that they be placed under bite quarantine. The property owner also needs to provide a secure location where the cat can acclimate for three weeks while gearing up for the job. A cage can be borrowed from the shelter upon request. Otherwise, the cats tend to vamoose back onto the streets, says McGill.

"They will come to depend on you as the food source, but they're not ones that are going to come up on your lap," the 12-year employee comments. "They're usually kind of more high-strung cats, and especially cats that come in traps."

Owners can be disqualified from the program if they live in an environmentally sensitive area, like a bird sanctuary identified by the Audubon Society of Portland, or if the location seems particularly unsafe because of heavy traffic or other considerations.

This isn't a rent-a-cat service. Almost all cats that leave through the program are expected to live with their new owner permanently.

During a recent trip to the Animal Shelter, 1700 W. Historic Columbia River Highway, about half a dozen cats were lounging in seperate cages in a small room set aside for less-socialized kitties.

Their cages were covered in rags and intake clipboards that note whether the feline friends are under legally mandated "bite quarantine." A blue-hued disco ball sets the mood, while a radio station tuned to NPR keeps up a steady patter.

"I think it is important for them to learn," says McGill.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - A disco ball rotates inside the small cat quarantine room at the Multnomah County Animal Shelter located at 1700 W. Historic Columbia River Highway. The radio is tuned to NPR. There are no hard and fast rules that determine who becomes a kitty for hire, but McGill and her crew of four technicians have identified plenty of rules of thumb.

A cat that's accustomed to living outdoors tends not to be a nervous eater — they never know when their next meal is coming, after all — but they probably don't like being petted.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Karen McGill has worked for the Multnomah County Animal Shelter for about 12 years.Ironically, a "well-socialized" feline is more likely to lash out, because they know most humans don't bite back. But they usually calm down quickly, which manifests in behavior like blinking, "singing" and licking their lips around dinner time.

"The cats that come in the most factious are generally the social cats," McGill explains. "They're really freaked out house cats — or at least they were at some point."

Since most of these cats aren't suitable as regular pets, a job catching rats means they won't end up taking the big sleep. Years ago, feral cats stayed at the Animal Shelter for just 24 hours before being euthanized.

Levitre, the shelter spokesman, says the Kitties for Hire program has a pleasant "zen," fulfilling locals' need for pest control while also increasing the shelter's cat placement rate.

"As a shelter, our interest is to find placement for the cats, which before the program wouldn't have been easily able to find a home," he notes.

For more information on this Multnomah County program, visit www.multcopets.org/kitties-for-hire.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Wendell the cat playfully claws at a visiting newspaper photographer in early February.

More Info

Check out this video by Multnomah County for more information on the program. It's available en espanol here.



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