In a manufacturing area a mile north of Midway Airport, the 75,000-square-foot factory of Skolnik Industries is the kind of place where a rat feels right at home. Last winter’s mild temps led to a noticeable rodent boom, and through the end of the summer, 3-1-1 experienced a near 30 percent increase in rat reports. But Skolnik’s problem with the pests began two years ago, when the steel-drum maker renovated its loading docks and unearthed a thriving colony.
“I did not want to use chemicals to treat the issue,” company president Howard Skolnik says while walking the factory floor a few weeks ago. “I don’t like the use of chemicals, and I know the rats take the poison, go up in the walls and die, which can create even more of a problem.” Last spring, Skolnik found a solution that draws on the natural-predator premise of Tom and Jerry cartoons: “Cats over rats,” he says.
A friend put Skolnik in contact with Jenny Schlueter of Uptown-based Tree House Humane Society. She had been working on a plan called the Cats at Work Relocation Program, an on-request service in which Tree House would furnish feral cats to “caretakers” with rodent woes. Not only would it ease Chicago’s rat problem, Schlueter thought, it would also find a use for some of the half-million cats she estimates roam wild in the city. “Most often, these feral cats have been neglected and are unadoptable,” Schlueter says. “So instead of Animal Control euthanizing the cats, we take them in.”
Schlueter gave Skolnik two feral cats from the Pilsen area. He named them King and Prince and built them a four-foot-by-eight-foot home dubbed “the condominium,” complete with ramps and little huts, in a quiet corner of the factory. Skolnik employee Sasha Baygents serves as caretaker, feeding the felines twice daily.
At first, the cream-colored kitties were unfriendly. “You couldn’t get near them,” Skolnik says while holding Prince, who soon wiggled out of the embrace. They were kept mostly in the condominium for the first two months, he says, “until it was reprogrammed that this was home.” Soon after, Skolnik began noticing the positive effects of the cats’ presence inside and outside the building. They were “doing their job,” he says. “There was one day when they brought us a gift”—a dead rat—“but other than that, we haven’t had any other rascals.”
Streets & Sanitation usually responds to 3-1-1 complaints of rat infestations by placing poison in holes or cracks in the pavement near the reported location. “But that isn’t necessarily the best method,” Schlueter insists. “The bait can be harmful to other animals”—especially dogs, who can eat the lethal poison—“and it will not keep rats from coming back. The poison runs out, and the city just has to keep returning to the site.” As opposed to baiting, Cats at Work doesn’t deplete taxpayer dollars, and Schlueter says each cat Tree House brings in saves the city nearly $140 in trapping and euthanizing costs. Since the program’s launch, the org has received more than 100 inquiries and has placed 61 cats.
There have been skeptics, Schlueter says, some of them cat lovers. The program encourages outdoor cats, which counters the animal-shelter orthodoxy of promoting proper care indoors. “The cats are all vaccinated and neutered,” Schlueter says. “And it’s important to remember, too, that these cats are virtually unadoptable otherwise.”
Skolnik’s business-minded hiring of King and Prince has developed into a more affectionate partnership. “The cats have become very friendly,” he says. “They’re quite a pair.”