Stadium Workers Support Their Four-Legged Staff

 |  Apr 19th 2011  |   1 Contribution


The feral cat feeding station under Jeld-Wen Field. Photo by Thomas Boyd

There's a group of employees at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Ore., that have rarely been seen. Yet they play a vital role in the maintenance of the soccer stadium.

A colony of feral cats, whose population is estimated at between 12 and 19, patrol the field and earn their keep by catching the rats that might otherwise serve as a disease vector for stadium patrons.

And they do a good job at it. Not one of the 80-some traps placed around the stadium has ever snagged a rat, says Ken Puckett, senior vice president of operations of Jeld-Wen Field and the Portland Timbers soccer team.

"Organic farms use cats as organic rodent control, but it's unique for a stadium and unique for a city," says Karen Kraus, executive director of the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon.

Puckett says the only other sports arena he knows of that keeps a feral cat colony on staff is the old football stadium in Philadelphia.

"We kind of inherited [the cats]," Puckett says. When he arrived on staff, there was a group of about 19 living there.

Kraus suspects the original colony was founded by neighborhood cats who were drawn to the food the stadium-goers left behind -- and the prey that food attracted.

Puckett said a local woman was feeding the ferals, but he was concerned that the population would keep increasing. He also wanted to protect the cats during the park's previous renovation, which took place in 2001.

"I said, 'I like the cats, but we have to do this a little better,'" he says. So he asked Kraus and the Feral Cat Coalition for help.

The group began a trap-neuter-return program. They gave the field's feral felines temporary housing and made sure the sick ones got veterinary care. When they found another feral cat colony that needed to be relocated, they added those cats to the Jeld-Wen Field population.

Kraus and her husband built a feeding station, which holds a stand-up water bottle and kibble dispensers.

Once the 2001 renovation was finished, the stadium's grounds crew set up the feeding station behind the Fred Meyer Family Deck, near the home bullpen viewing area. They dubbed the station Feral Cat Alley, and even built an ADA-standard ramp so the elderly cats could have access to the food.

The feeding station soon became one of the most popular parts of the stadium tour. And the cats became such a part of the park's population that author Chuck Palahniuk wrote a chapter about them in Fugitives and Refugees, his literary tour of Portland.

But when the latest round of construction -- transforming the stadium into the home field for major league soccer team the Portland Timbers -- the maintenance crew had to move the feeding station in order to keep the cats safe.

They moved the station about 10 feet at a time, so the cats could continue to locate it, until it was in a dirt area underneath the stadium.

Although the staff knows the cats are there -- as evidenced by the regular disappearance of the food left out for them -- they are rarely seen.

"They mostly come out at night," Puckett says. "A lot of times, they're a blur."

"They don't let you pet 'em, but they know where the food source is," says housekeeping supervisor Becky Jones. "I see paw prints on my desk."

"Most of them you never see," Puckett says. "You just see their eyes looking at you from the dark of the dirt."

Except for Sylvester. Named after the cartoon cat because of his black fur and white front, he often lounged on the warm turf in the morning sunlight, before the team began its practice sessions. He also was the only member of the colony who appeared regularly and watched the night crew working.

But unfortunately, Sylvester wasn't one of the thousands of people and dozen or so cats who watched the Timbers' sold-out game last Thursday. A few weeks ago he died, most likely from old age. Puckett thinks Sylvester was 13 or 14 years old.

"He had a great life, he got taken care of. This was his kingdom," Puckett says. "We'll miss looking out the window in the morning and seeing him on the turf."

Kraus says the colony does not need any more members. She cautions people not to abandon their cats at the park and expect that the current residents are going to welcome them with open paws. In fact, just the opposite will happen.

"It's not a place for new cats," Kraus says. "Pet cats aren't just going to join a colony."

Even Puckett's 140-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback dog won't mess with the feral field staff. "It's almost like having bobcats. They're wild," he says.

[Source: The Oregonian]

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