A large gray cat with tufts of white fur demands affection in sharp meows as soon as the door opens, while a younger, cream-colored one stretches on his pillow. The adoptable cats of Best Friends Animal Society in Mission Hills are family-friendly and uninhibited by the presence of strangers.
In a large wire enclosure behind the shelter, however, the cats shrink from people. They watch cautiously from carpeted ledges and dart behind billowing drapes when they hear approaching footsteps.
Though skittish, the enclosure cats are all for hire.
The Working Cat program matches cats that are "unbonded to humans" with businesses that need pest control. Since Best Friends Animal Society started the program in late 2014, the number of adoptions has jumped from fewer than 30 cats in 2015 to 165 — 24 adopted locally and 140 transfers — in the last fiscal year.
Michelle Sathe, public relations specialist at Best Friends Animal Society, makes it clear that these cats are not pets.
"There are cats that are not meant to be in homes, that are not social enough," Sathe says. "So we wanted to give them an opportunity to get out of the shelter and give them a job."
Most of the cats residing in the enclosure have had little interaction with people, particularly during their formative years. Elizabeth Anderson, who leads cat care at Best Friends Animal Society, says working cats can "often enjoy human company, but only at a safe distance."
"These cats do not allow or enjoy petting the way a normal house cat does," Anderson says. "We just look for a different type of home for them."
Sathe says the cats do well in open spaces, particularly in warehouses, breweries and barns. Clients include the Los Angeles Flower Market in downtown L.A. and Anchor Brewing in San Francisco.
Arthur Flores, co-founder of Los Angeles Distributing Company, adopted two working cats for his warehouse. Though he's there every day, he rarely sees his feline employees — in fact, he's not sure if both cats still reside in the warehouse. Though Flores leaves food out daily, consumption has been "cut in half."
"The food just gets eaten," he says. "And the mice stay away, so we assume [the cat] is around somewhere."
Flores' business supplies stores around L.A. County with wholesale snacks and beverages. He adopted the cats about a year and a half ago after dealing with rodent issues when his distributing company first moved into the building. Calling pest control didn't help much, so a friend suggested adopting cats for the warehouse.
And Flores says they're getting the job done: "We haven't seen a single rodent since [adopting] the cats."
Cats are a natural rodent deterrent, even if they're not actively hunting. Mice can smell urinary proteins secreted by cats, snakes and other predators. According to a 2010 study at the Scripps Research Institute, mice don't recognize predators because of experiences with them but because they have evolved to do so. The mere scent of the urinary proteins found in cats triggers a fear response in mice.
"It's not like they're even going after the rodents," Sathe says of the cats. "They're kind of like a sonic force."
Though the working cats aren't traditional pets, they still need some level of care. Anderson advises against allowing cats to wander freely outside. They need to be in an enclosed space and provided with fresh food and water every day.
Much like adopting a pet for the home, working cats are a commitment. According to Anderson, adopters "need to understand that a cat can live for 20 years!"
Brittany Sorgenstein, who works at Best Friends Animal Society, brought home two working cats for her barn. She has goats, chickens and turkeys on her property, but rodents kept getting into their stored food.
"The feed would come in thick paper bags," Sorgenstein says, "and the rats would chew right through them, spilling the grain on the floor." The rats also managed to chew through plastic bins.
Since adopting the cats — now named Bonnie and Clyde — Sorgenstein says the visits from "our rat friends" have declined. However, Bonnie and Clyde aren't typical pets. Like Flores' warehouse cat, Sorgenstein barely sees hers.
"They typically hide when people are around," she says. "I see them on our security cameras sometimes, playing with crickets."
Despite the enthusiastic reviews from cat employers, not every Angeleno is enamored of the Working Cat program. Dr. Travis Longcore, the science director for the Urban Wildlands Group, has been an outspoken critic of programs like this. Many cities have TNR — trap, neuter and return — initiatives that catch feral cats, sterilize them and release them back into the streets. Longcore sees feral cats as an invasive species, and he supported an 2009 court injunction to halt city-supported TNR until a review of the impact on local wildlife is conducted. Although citizens can bring feral cats to clinics for sterilization, city shelters cannot perform TNR.
"Working Cats is just an excuse to dump shelter cats anywhere but in the shelter," Longcore says via email. "It is not effective for rat control."
Longcore is adamant that a cat's presence only makes rats less visible, and that rodents are "still there if the food source is there."
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"At the end of the day, free-roaming cats are a health hazard in terms of fleas and feces, and a nuisance," Longcore says. "To control rodents, you need to secure the food sources and kill the rodents directly."
Despite the criticism, Sathe believes the program is a humane option for animals that would otherwise spend their lives in shelters. She points out that adult cats are among those most killed at city shelters because they're often not social.
"Our whole goal was to give these cats another option and live life as a working cat," Sathe says. "Even if it's not as a traditional pet, it's still a pretty cool life."
And for Flores, who still believes there's at least one cat guarding his business, "It's a win-win."