Career cats hold jobs

When Spike was hired at Jamestown Feed and Seed, his people skills were a bit lacking. A humble fellow, he works for his keep: some chow in the morning and a warm place to rest his paws.

Spike is a cat, brought on at the store to ferret out mice and other unwanted pests from the warehouse.

His on-boarding was the first in what Heritage Humane Society later named the Career Cat Program, an initiative to house cats outside of a home. Sometimes they go to stores, like Spike, or barns, wineries or distilleries.

These so-called barn cats get a shot at life they wouldn't otherwise have had, said the program's creator Catherine Watts, Heritage Humane Society's medical team lead. Barn cats are feral, mean or unsocial, and probably wouldn't do well in a home with people.

Cats that can't be adopted due to behavioral issues are generally euthanized, a practice for shelters across the nation, Watts said.

Watts wanted to change that practice.

Cutting euthanization rates

Spike was the first cat from Heritage to find employment in fall 2014. The program began informally; Watts would hold feral cats longer than usual, personally trying to find a barn that would take them in.

She successfully placed seven cats in 2014, 17 in 2015 and nearly 90 in 2016, all of which otherwise would have been euthanized.

"I was just out on my own to save a few cats," Watts said. "It's an amazing feeling to know that I saved that many lives. They would not have made it out of the shelter."

The initiative officially launched with the name, Career Cat Program, in early 2016.

The program runs on donations, Watts said.

Any cat adopted through the program is free, comes fully vaccinated and spayed or neutered. Those costs can exceed $200 per cat, so the shelter requests donations from adopters, to benefit future career cats.

Watts credits the program for cutting the shelter's euthanasia rates. The shelter took in 740 cats in 2015 and of the 90 cats put down, 45 were behavior cases and the other half due to health reasons.

In 2016, intake was higher, 940 felines, but only 10 were euthanized for behavior. Watts is hopeful no cats will be put down for that reason in 2017.

Right place, right cat

Cats with behavior issues often are mean and attack people, but includes those that refuse to use a litter box or just don't like being around humans.

"We get a lot of cats that are terrified in the cages and seem to be very mean, but once you get them to a barn or indoor-outdoor home, it's a totally different cat," Watts said. "They are able to do what they naturally want to do, their instinct is to hunt. … There's no reason they can't continue doing what they were doing before they were brought in here."

Barn cats have varying classifications at Heritage. Of the eight barn cats available now, three are completely feral. Watts has to use a fake hand to reach into the cage.

Two others fall into a semi-social classification: they aren't very mean or scared, but would do better in an outdoor environment. The other three cats are on the fence, Watts said. They could do well in the right home, but may also fit into a barn setting.

While the cats do well on their own, and some want to be left alone, owners are still responsible for providing some food, water and a warm shelter.

Spike's new home

Spike was the first, but his story is similar to many others that now live at farms and barns as far as North Carolina and Fredericksburg.

Shortly after entering the shelter, Spike bit someone on the adoption floor and was put on the list to be put down. Watts tried to talk her husband Brian into letting him join their family at home.

Brian Watts suggested his workplace, Jamestown Feed and Seed, instead. The store supplies food for a range of animals out of a store and warehouse in Toano. Housing so much grain inevitably attracts mice.

During his first six months in the store, owner Shirley Hatten said Spike stayed in the warehouse, hiding. Any noise would send him scurrying up to an attic area above the shelves tightly packed with bags of animal food.

"He was not that friendly when he came here. I was a little concerned about customers to start with," Hatten said. "I did not hold out a lot of hope for him to be socialized, but he's come around."

Where he hangs out now depends on the season; when it gets too hot or cold in the warehouse, Spike likes to lounge around the store instead. He's usually front-and-center on a green rug, the first thing guests see when walking through the front doors.

Every morning Spike does rounds at the store, on patrol for rodent invaders. He does his job catching mice well, Hatten said. But she said, more importantly, customers love him.

Kayleigh Hirsh owns a barn in Toano, KM Performance Horse, used for horse training, lessons and boarding. The barn houses 12 to 15 horses at a time.

She wanted cats to keep pests away, but ones who were social enough for the boarders who visit her farm.

Stevie and Sweet Tea, a pair of declawed cats that refused to use a litter box, were the answer. They'd been returned to Heritage three times from homes, but were very social, Watts said.

Hirsch said the two are good mouse catchers, but are also kid-safe and friendly.

"I just think that a barn should take advantage of being able to give these guys homes, it's the only shot that they get," Hirsh said. "If they don't go to a house, that's the end of the road for them."

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

How it helps:

2015: Heritage took in 740 cats, 90 were euthanized — 45 for behavior issues and and 45 due to health reasons. Watts placed 17 cats with behavior issues through the program.

2016: Heritage took in 940 cats, 39 were euthanized — 10 for behavior and 29 for health reasons. Watts placed 90 cats with behavior issues through the program.

How to get involved:

If you have a barn or warehouse that could use a career cat, call Heritage at 757-221-0150 to see who's available. Applicants must provide a warm sheltered area, food and water and be prepared to take on any long-term veterinary care, if needed.

To donate to the program, visit heritagehumanesociety.org/donate/.

For more information about the program or to learn how to adopt, call 757-221-0150, visit bit.ly/2jMMUZu or email CareerCat@HeritageHumaneSociety.org.

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