LINCOLN PARK, CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — When crews begin to demolish the massive Children’s Memorial Hospital site in April, rats are expected to scurry from their nests in literally – droves. To combat what the developer said will be an “awful” rat issue, the neighbors have been increasingly turning to feral cats rather than traditional extermination, which has in the past included rat traps and poison.
Paul Nickerson, manager of Tree House Humane Society’s “Cats at Work” program, said he has been “inundated” with calls from Lincoln Parkers seeking more and more feral cats, in large part due to an email newsletter promoting the program sent out by Ald. Michele Smith’s 43rd Ward office.
Within 24 hours of the newsletter, Nickerson said he received more than 30 inquiries. Most of the residents pointed to the imminent demolition of Children’s Memorial Hospital, but that’s just one of at least three major construction projects which are currently taking shape on Lincoln Avenue.
Lincoln Centre, a huge residential building just a few blocks south on Lincoln Avenue, is coming down at the very same time as the hospital buildings. In addition, construction on DePaul University’s music school building is already underway.
Whenever there’s excavation in a big city, rats are always an issue. Developers are required to do on-site rodent abatement from the time excavation begins until excavation is complete or they risk fines.
This year, the feral cat program has already placed about 75 percent of the cats it placed all of last last year, which means it’s on pace to more than double the previous year’s work. Nickerson pointed to the mild winter, which has contributed to the rat population, as the main reason.
“It’s never been busier,” Nickerson said of the program. “It’s just going to explode this year.”
Rat complaints have increased nearly 50 percent in Chicago this year, with the city on pace to get 50,000 complaints in 2016.
Under this program, which is in its fourth year, feral cats are placed in a resident’s backyard or garage (an outdoor spot with shelter is preferred) to hunt, kill and drive away rats in an environmentally friendly way. For 28 days, the cats live in “acclimation crates” just before they are released to find their prey.
According to Nickerson, rat traps and poison create what he described as a “vacuum effect,” meaning the new rats move into the old boroughs where the dead rats once lived.
“It’s a never-ending battle, and it just doesn’t work,” said Liz Houtz, who oversees all of the trap, neuter and return activities as community cats program manager.
Feral cats, however, not only kill the rats, but they also drive them away simply with their presence and scent. Plus, there is absolutely no poison involved, which could potentially harm children or pets, and the cats then become staples in the neighborhood, Nickerson said.
A few years ago, Nickerson was merely a concerned resident, battling a “superhighway” of rats which were living underneath his deck — the result of a nearby factory being torn down.
He had city workers install rat traps and also poison, but the rodents kept coming.
“I tried everything, and it wasn’t effective,” said Nickerson, who lives adjacent to the Lathrop Homes complex.
That’s when he turned to the “Cats at Work” program for help.
About two weeks after the cats were released, each and every one the rats were gone, he said. Floored by the success, Nickerson began volunteering for the program, which has eventually led to his current full-time gig.
“I racked my brain for years trying to solve the rat equation,” he said. “Now, almost everyone I visit, I see myself in the stuff they’ve done. It’s an emotional issue, and people have been looking for solutions for forever. This is the solution.”
Nickerson does on-site visits to make sure each resident is prepared for the new responsibility. Though the cats live outside, they must be fed twice each day and given water whenever their dish is empty.
Usually, the program places three cats per household, but some households get more or less and that depends on the size of the property.
On top of killing rats, the cats are friendly animals which end up delighting the community, according to Nickerson.
“Almost everyone gets the cats to kill rats, but people don’t think about the relationships they’ll have with these cats,” he said. “These cats are unbelievable. Each one has their own personality. They become socialized. Everybody loves that aspect of the program.”
The cats that are in the program were all removed from life-threatening situations and saved by the organization. In other words, these are cats which would otherwise be killed.
They are getting a “second chance.”
After years of informally saving cats, Tree House, an organization that rescues stray, abandoned and sick cats, oas hfficially launched the “Cats at Work” program in 2011. Today, it sponsors in upwards of 650 cat colonies, which includes more than 3,500 free-roaming cats in Cook County.