Want ‘Green’ Rodent Control? Think Feral Cats


It’s widely thought to be the reason cats and humans started keeping company: Cats are a great tool for controlling rodent populations.

Now, in the city of Marseilles, Ill., history is repeating itself, thanks to the efforts of Spay It Forward, a nonprofit based in the nearby village of Seneca, and a group of dedicated volunteers.

The organization manages four feral cat colonies in Marseilles and surrounding communities, and in return the cats dispatch the mice and rats that live in the area. One of these colonies, Bar Alley, is behind a row of restaurants and taverns in downtown Marseilles. It is led by Smoky Joe, a buff-and-orange tomcat; his harem of four females; and their dozen or so offspring. Spay It Forward began working with the Bar Alley gang early this year and are trapping, neutering, vaccinating, and returning all the cats to their homes, where they can continue their mousing activities.

The idea of using feral cats to control rodent populations is nothing new to the thousands of farmers who allow cats to live in their barns and outbuildings because of their hunting skills. It hadn’t occurred to a lot of people that free-roaming community cats could serve a similar purpose in urban areas as well — but now the “green rodent control” initiative is spreading across the United States.

Feral cat colonies that are properly managed can reduce or eliminate rodents without resorting to inhumane treatments like traps or toxic sprays — or rat poisons that can lead to the poisoning of other non-nuisance animals. The cats’ scent and their ability to hunt makes for a low-cost, low-environmental-impact way to keep the rodent population at bay.

Of course, to make the idea palatable to town and city residents, those who took responsibility for the cat colonies needed to manage not only the cat populations but the constant fighting, yowling, urine spraying, and other feline behaviors some people find repellent.

That’s where Spay It Forward’s TNR expert, Jennifer Bilyeu, came in. She traps the cats in the colonies managed by her volunteers and has them transported to PAWS, a no-kill humane organization on the north side of Chicago. There, the cats are spayed or neutered, receive rabies and distemper vaccines and a flea treatment, and get microchipped and ear-tipped. The ear tipping, or slicing off the top centimeter of the cat’s ear while it is under anesthesia for its spay or neuter, is painless. The snipped ear is essentially the international symbol for “This cat has been trapped, neutered, and returned to a managed colony.”

As a city on a river and a canal, Marseilles has a long history of rampaging rodents. In fact, in a 1911 local newspaper article, town constable W.D. Quinn pushed for an annual rat-killing day, where everybody in the city should show up and kill as many rats as possible.

These days, very few Marseilles residents are up for a day of playing Whack-A-Rat, so, as Bilyeu recently told the City Council, the feral cats are a practical and cost-effective solution to a long-standing problem.

“This is a green alternative for rodent control, and it’s also a lot cheaper to trap, neuter, and return those kitties,” she said.

So far, it seems to be working. Because of the proper management of the colonies and an ongoing TNR campaign, the cats don’t reproduce. Because they’re vaccinated against rabies and distemper, they don’t pose a public health hazard. And because they’re being observed and cared for, they’re much more likely to live out their lives —feral cats typically live about 6 years — healthier and more secure.

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