Gophers and rats were eating Karen and Simon Clark’s landscaping.
The Santa Barbara couple found a solution.
A semi-feral cat.
“Larry was a brilliant hunter,” Mrs. Clark told the News-Press, referring to her brown tabby, who died last year. “He was prolific in bringing in everything from gophers to rats. He wouldn’t eat them, but they were a little bit worse for wear.”
Mrs. Clark said Larry would drop the rats and gophers at their back door. “Simon always gave him extra treats when he brought in rodents.”
The appreciation for semi-feral and feral cats has grown through the Working Cats program.
The Animal Shelter Assistance Program placed 47 such cats last year in Santa Barbara County homes. Besides cats from the ASAP shelter in Goleta, the program finds homes for feral or semi-feral cats who have been at the Santa Maria Animal Center and the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley humane societies, coordinator Mary Scott told the News-Press.
“This year so far, 34 working cats have been placed, 16 of which are from northern Santa Barbara County shelters,” Mrs. Scott, 57, told the News-Press.
The program is free for families who adopt the cats. Ms. Scott explained these are cats that an ASAP behavior team has determined wouldn’t do well as house cats but have proved proficient in catching and deterring rodents and pests.
There is no adoption fee for the feral or semi-feral cats.
“We have had many success stories,” Mrs. Scott said. “The cats have been very good and thorough hunters.”
Angela Walters Yates, the former ASAP executive director, told the News-Press in an email how the program started.
“ASAP had been doing ‘ranch cat’ or ‘alternative placements’ since before I was first involved with the organization in 2002,” Mrs. Yates said. “Historically, they were called ‘ranch cats’ and that (changed) to ‘alternative placements.’ We coined the phrase ‘working cats’ about 2014 and created a more formal program with a logo and materials around 2015-2016.”
Mrs. Scott noted that the inclusion of North County shelters is one way ASAP is trying to meet the growing demand for the cats.
She said each cat is microchipped and neutered or spayed and has had a vaccination against rabies, as well as a feline distemper shot. Each cat also has tested negative for feline leukemia, autoimmune disease, and a fecal test for parasites.
“We have to caution people that there’s no guarantee that these cats will stay home at the property, but everything we do is toward that goal,” Mrs. Scott said.
She said an ASAP shelter showed that 25 of 27 cats remained with their owners.
The cats normally don’t live inside the houses, Mrs. Scott said. “There should be sufficient outdoor space so cats aren’t too close to humans.”
“We don’t want a feral cat being frightened by being too close to humans,” she said. “We don’t want to expose a cat to that kind of stress. By the same token, we don’t want to expose owners to a cat who’s stressed out.”
The more semi-feral cats may like to be petted, but not too much, and the Working Cats in general don’t want to be picked up, she explained.
ASAP screens potential homes and checks on details such as other dogs and cats in the household.
“We take a look at the dog and assess the dog’s nature,” Mrs. Scott said.
ASAP reminds owners that the felines require care that’s similar to what’s given to house cats.
“It’s very important to feed them twice a day and talk to them a little bit,” Mrs. Scott said.
When the nonprofit places a cat in a home, it is left inside a cage for two weeks to give it time to adjust to its new environment, Mrs. Scott said. “The internal kitty GPS has to be reset.”
The News-Press was there on the night Mrs. Scott and placement specialist Belinda Burns brought Maggie T in a cage to Mr. and Mrs. Clark’s home. The semi-feral calico seemed fine with some casual contact with the Santa Barbara residents.
Several weeks later, the News-Press contacted Mrs. Clark again. She explained Maggie T was living comfortably in her igloo-shaped outdoor house, which is heated by an electric pad.
“She’s really adapted quite well,” Mrs. Clark said. “She loves to sit with us. I sat outside with her last weekend. She acclimated very quickly to both Simon and me.
“She likes to be petted, but she has her limits. She’s not an indoor lap pet, but she’s not wholly feral either,” Mrs. Clark said. “She’s 9 years old, but doesn’t act like it. She acts like a kitten!”
While Maggie T hasn’t brought any prey to their doorstep yet, Mrs. Clark said their new Working Cat has deterred rats and gophers by her sheer presence.
Mrs. Scott talked about other success stories.
A motion-sensor camera in the garage at a Hope Ranch home showed Sitka picking up a rat he caught, Mrs. Scott said. Sitka, a domestic short-haired, lives there with his brother, Kodiak, a domestic medium- or long-haired.
Another cat, Parker, was at ASAP for several months as a behavior team worked with her on socialization.
“Parker remained a bit unpredictable and was deemed an alternate placement,” Mrs. Scott said.
Instead of ending up inside a house, Parker was placed in May at a Jalama ranch, where she’s doing well with a buddy cat from the Santa Maria Animal Center.
ASAP has another service, Tiny Lion Tamer Program, a feral kitten socialization program that attempts to make the felines adoptable at homes. Mrs. Scott said the program refers many young cats, who prove not to be suitable as house cats, to the Working Cats program.
Among them is Prancer, who was placed in May at Santa Barbara County Fire Department’s Station 15 on Foothill Road. Prancer, who’s 10 months old, joined another Working Cat, 9-month-old Daire.
Mrs. Scott said Chummie, a short-haired orange tabby, is enjoying living at a Goleta home with a pool. “Chummie’s doing great!”
Mrs. Clark praised ASAP for preparing owners on caring for and interacting with the semi-feral and feral cats. “If you follow their guidance, you’ll have a successful partnership with the cat.”
Working Cats places feral or semi-feral cats, who hunt rodents and other pests, in Santa Barbara County homes. There is no adoption fee.
For more information, contact Animal Shelter Assistance Program at 805-699-5739 or go to www.asapcats.org.