The Craigslist posting said, “Rodents in your warehouse, garage, shop? Mouser cats need a home (Seattle region).”
At a 10,000-square-foot hangar under the West Seattle Bridge, the employees at Decorative Metal Arts can vouch for giving feral cats a home.
Amid the clanking and grinding noises of the shop, you’ll find a pair of Siamese males. You can spot them looking at you from behind some stacks of supplies. Or just stop by a storage room where they have their own beds, litter boxes, food dishes and a heater set up for the cold winter months.
“We’re below sea level, and we have a lot of homeless encampments around. With that comes a lot of garbage, and a lot of rats. There were times when I was working, and a rat would run right past me,” says Marie Trybulski, lead finisher at the shop.
These were good-size, nasty-looking rodents, at least a half a foot long.
“They work as a team,” Trybulski says about the cats. “One of them chases the rats out of a space, and the other one goes and catches them.”
The infestation is gone. Sometimes, presumably to show they’re still on the job, the cats leave rats “as gifts,” she says.
The Craigslist posting was placed in mid-February by Deb Sorensen, 69, a Magnolia woman who 10 years ago was one of three founders of the Alley Cat Project. Although there are a few other feral-cat rescue groups in the area, this group of 20 volunteers deals only with Seattle cats and mostly places them in the city.
Each year, the group traps about 300 cats, of which two-thirds are kittens. All are spayed or neutered, and microchipped. Because they can still be socialized, the kittens are adopted out to homes.
An adult feral cat is simply too wild to be adopted out, and so it gets returned to its original site, where, most of the time, someone has been feeding them, says Sorensen.
“We’re not putting them out there to die. We know they’ll continue to be fed,” she says.
In the past decade, Sorensen says, her group has also placed some 300 adults in breweries, restaurants, a florist, a concrete works factory and various shops. Some have been trapped by the Alley Cat Project, she says, but most come from the Seattle Animal Shelter. The feral cats have been trapped and brought there by individuals, and then transferred by the agency to the rescue.
Why care about feral cats?
“There’s absolutely no difference genetically between a feral cat and a pet cat,” says Sorensen. A group like hers, she says, because of spaying and neutering, reduces the population of feral cats.
So if you consider yourself a cat lover, she says, consider the life of a feral cat: “Short and brutal. They are not wildlife. They mostly survive by dumpster diving and hunting rodents.”
Sorensen’s career has been varied. She was a paralegal, then a theater costume designer. She has always had an appreciation for cats.
“I really respect that they know they’re entitled,” she says. “They have grace and incredible skills. They’re great companions.”
Before the Alley Cat Project, Sorensen used to volunteer at the Seattle Animal Shelter.
“We quickly realized that the flood of kittens coming in and putting stress on our shelter system was coming from homeless feral cat colonies. No one was doing anything about that, except for individuals working on their own,” she says.
And so she took up the cause of feral cats. “Only 20 or 25% of kittens born feral ever survive without assistance,” she says. “They deserve protecting.”
A second chance
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has brought much of everyday life to a halt.
On March 23, as business dried up, the Decorative Metal Arts shop went on standby, says Trybulski. But someone goes in every day to check on the cats, she says. They’re doing fine.
Out in the rural areas of the county, there are places that’ll take feral cats so they can become barn cats. You know, like a horse barn.
We live in the city. The closest thing we have to barns are the big spaces in industrial areas.
“These cats have been deemed not adoptable as house pets at shelters,” Sorensen wrote in her Craigslist post. “You’ll be giving them a second chance.”
The two cats at the metal shop came from Sorensen two years ago. They’ve been named Skidmark, because of an unusual stripe down his back, and BK, because the fur on his face is blacker than that of his presumed sibling.
Don’t expect feral cats to develop a cuddly personality. At the metal shop, Trybulski says the two Siamese eventually let her pet them, and they do hang around the 12 employees.
“If somebody is having a crappy day, they come out here,” meaning the storage room where the cats sleep, she says, “and hang out with the cats.”
Cats, period, aren’t much changed genetically from their wild days 10,000 years ago. They tolerate humans.
Today’s 600 million cats all originated in the Middle East from five females that decided to start hanging around the earliest farming settlements, according to research led by Carlos Driscoll, of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health.
The wheat, rye and barley stored by these early farmers drew rats and mice; the wild cats found easy pickings. A relationship between man and cat began as Felis silvestris lybica kept check on the rodents.
All the cats had to do was “to evolve a people-friendly disposition,” wrote Driscoll. Yet, “… the average domestic cat largely retains the wild body plan.”
In February, Whitney Phillips, one of the Alley Cat Project volunteers, trapped a colony of seven cats that had been hanging around an older, two-story commercial building in the 5200 block of Rainier Avenue South. It was scheduled for demolition to make way for a six-story, 73-unit apartment complex.
The cats had found a home in the empty lot around the site, in container boxes, assorted junk and tall bushes.
Phillips, who lives nearby, would come around six days a week and leave food, and even constructed sleeping quarters for them out of Styrofoam boxes.
Phillips is 37 and has worked with cats since she was a teenager in Everett, helping her mom, also a cat rescuer. Phillips is a partner in Better Kitty, a business that grooms cats in their owners’ homes.
Seeing all those stray cats, says Phillips, “I just couldn’t forget about it. I had to start doing something.”
She says, “When I think of how many kittens a female cat can have in a year, and in a lifetime, and how negatively it impacts her life and health, and then I trap that kitty and she is spayed and vaccinated, and I set up a neighborhood feeder for her, it’s just a win-win-win.”
Among the small group of volunteers who help these animals, that help still goes on. A few days ago, Phillips delivered 40-pound bags of cat food to three other volunteers who go out each day to feral cat sites in South Seattle. They feed 25 cats.
Sardines and KFC
At the property in the Columbia City area, Phillips says she’s never named the feral cats, even if at least one would recognize her.
“I respect their wildness. They’re not bonded and probably never will be. They’re living their lives the only way they know how,” she says. “We are the guardians to them, making sure they get fed and medical help if they need it.”
It didn’t take long to trap the cats. Near a hedge, Phillips put out three cages, covered with a towel. She put some canned cat food at the opening. In case the cats weren’t coming around, she had sardines as a backup. Kentucky Fried Chicken is the absolute last resort.
Soon, a male cat stopped by the opening and began eating. A trail of food led the way inside. He took his time but couldn’t resist. Halfway into the cage, he stepped on a metal plate and the trap shut.
Last year, that meant 368 cats trapped, the kind you might see darting through an abandoned lot. One-third — too wild to be placed in a home — were neutered and taken back to their original sites. The other two-thirds, says Sorensen, are typically kittens who can still be socialized and fostered for adoption.
A coming cat-population boom?
The coronavirus shutdown has also meant the shutdown of such clinics as the Feral Cat Spay/Neuter Project in Lynnwood.
Until a clinic like that reopens, says Sorensen, trapping feral cats is on hold. She expects a population boom of kittens in a month or so.
Researchers have had a hard time estimating the number of feral cats. They’re nocturnal. They avoid people.
The closest estimate comes from work published in 2013 and led by Scott Loss, an associate ecology professor at Oklahoma State University. In the Lower 48 states, the estimate is 81.5 to 85.5 million “owned” cats, and 30 to 80 million “un-owned cats.”
Got rats? In search of new sites
The seven cats trapped by Phillips ended up being taken in by Sorensen.
She is looking for a few light-manufacturing places, even breweries with all that grain in stock, to consider a feral cat or two. Sorensen has placed two of those seven.
She has a couple more possibilities, such as a Bellingham waterfront restaurant that closed because of coronavirus and found that rats are moving in. “I’m pretty picky about where I put cats,” she says.
For those intrigued about feral cats as mousers, here are more testimonials.
Josh Buening, salesman at Washington Chain & Supply on Utah Avenue South in Sodo, tells about Gizmo, a female that’s the last of a group of feral cats that made the shop their home (the others died of old age):
“We just love our cats. They add character to the shop. They give you something to look forward to in the morning. They give you a home feel rather than a work feel. We have the rodent company come periodically. They say our rat boxes are clean.”
But don’t count on Gizmo being too affectionate. Maybe three of the 15 shop workers can pet her. “She’s a little skittish.”
The chain company is considered an essential business during the COVID-19 shutdowns, and Gizmo is hard at work.
Cats are also part of the operation at Twisted Monk, a rope-making shop under the West Seattle Bridge. As the shop’s first two feral cats — Tinker and Soldier — got older, owner Mark Walling and his wife, Tamara, took them to their home for retirement.
They’ve been replaced by Tailor and Spy, who are getting acclimated to their surroundings, albeit with fewer humans around the shop right now. Walling says he has put his eight employees on three weeks paid leave and comes in to work by himself to fill orders.
Tinker and Soldier left the two new cats a daunting legacy.
“Before the cats arrived, you could leave a jar of peanut butter on the counter, and the next morning there’d be teeth marks all around it,” says Walling.
That’d be rat teeth marks.
“Being so close to the harbor, the kind of rats we get are the kind that beat up other rats, take their lunch money,” says Walling.
Tinker and Soldier took care of business with the rodents.
“They were bruisers,” says Walling.