The killer is caged, his prey just beyond reach. Soon he’ll prowl the streets, but for now he’s hiding under a fluffy fleece bed, only his small pink nose and white paws poking out.
His name is Miso, and he’s a cat with his work cut out for him. Miso’s new home is an alley in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington D.C., and it’s teeming with rats. More than 50 trash and recycling bins line the alley behind a stretch of row houses, and almost every plastic bin has a fist-sized hole where a rat has chewed through. At dusk, dozens of rats scurry across the alley, diving into the holes to collect their dinner.
That’s what Miso is here to help with. He’s a feral cat, born on the streets and brought here not as a pet, but to do a job. He’ll spend about three weeks in the covered cage being fed and sheltered as an incentive to stick around once he’s released from the cage—when, if he follows the human plan, he’ll start catching rats.
Feral cats are just one kind of animal that some cities are embracing for their rat-killing prowess. In New York City, a group of rat-hunting terrier, dachshund, and mutt owners patrol the streets. Chicago has even given urban coyotes an uneasy embrace. For the most part, these animals aren’t part of official city programs, but unofficially, most cities are game for whatever kills rats. The question is how much help they can offer.
Cat vs. Rat
“My position [on the cats] is if it works, that helps us,” says Gerard Brown, who manages the DC city government’s rat control program. Rat calls to the city hotline are up by a third over the last three years, which Brown attributes to a string of mild winters. “Usually when winters are cold, that acts as a natural exterminator,” he says. In 2016 Mayor Muriel Bowser responded to the growing complaints by declaring a renewed war on rats.
There are two basic ways to kill off a rat population. One is to limit rats’ food supply, which in cities means garbage. Ecologists would call this a bottom-up approach, cutting off the base of the food chain. There’s also the top-down approach: introduce a predator, whether human or feline, to kill the rats.
The mayor’s Rat Riddance program attacks the rodents on all fronts. DC city workers are suffocating rats in their burrows using dry-ice pellets that release carbon dioxide (there can be anywhere from nine to 15 rats in one burrow, Brown says) and deploying fancy new rat-resistant trash cans.
And then there are the cats, separate from the city’s efforts. Miso is the 44th cat “hired” through the Blue Collar Cats program, which the nonprofit Humane Rescue Alliance launched in January. Blue Collar Cats traps feral cats, neuters and vaccinates them, and releases them back into their version of the wild: the streets and alleys of the nation’s capital. Homeowners or business owners agree to provide the cats food and outdoor covered shelter, and in return the cats are expected to exercise their natural instincts as rodent predators. (Cats generally hunt even if they’re fed; the program discourages withholding food in the hopes that a starving cat will hunt more rats.)
“First and foremost for us, this is a lifesaving programs for cats,” says Lauren Lipsey of the Humane Rescue Alliance. Since people are more motivated to care for alley cats that catch rats, the group has embraced the idea as a win-win. So far, she says, the cats’ caregivers seem happy, and report seeing fewer rodents and even some dead ones.
What’s more, some of the alternatives for rodent control, such as poisons that cause rats to slowly die of internal bleeding, are “horribly inhumane” to rodents, Lipsey says, and can accidentally kill pets and wildlife. (See “This Is What Happens When You Use Rat Poison: Flymageddon.”)
Traps aren’t much better. Back in the rat-infested alley with Miso the cat, neighbor Marc Poe points out his rat trap, which a rat has dragged across the alley. The rat, injured but alive, turns to watch us from the chain-link fence in which it has become entangled, the trap still clamped to its tail.
“They’re out more the night before trash day,” Poe says — sometimes so many that people shoot at them with BB guns for sport. He’s skeptical that his neighbor’s new feral cat will be able to help much. “I think it’s a lost cause,” he says. “There are just going to be rats.”
But cats may not be getting their due respect, says John Bradshaw, a cat and dog behavior expert at the University of Bristol and author of the book Cat Sense. “Terriers and domestic cats were traditionally used to control rats, and still do in rural areas of the USA and U.K.,” he says.
Feral cats are a different beast from pet cats, Bradshaw says. “An adult rat is a formidable opponent for a cat, so most pet cats won't go near them — only cats that were trained by their mothers how to deal with a rat,” he says. (Read an interview with Bradshaw in “What Do Cats Think of Us? You Might Be Surprised.”)
Recipients of Blue Collar Cats seem happy with the results. At the Right Proper Brewing Company in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, stacked bags of oats and malt were a draw for rats and mice, until owner Thor Cheston got a Blue Collar cat and named him Barley. “We used to use a lot of traps and poisons, and it never worked,” says employee K.C. Pierce. “With the cat it’s 100 percent. I haven’t seen a rat since we got the cat.”
Dog vs. Cat (vs. Rat)
On a farm or in a brewery, a cat isn’t likely to face as many rats as in a trash-filled alley, so the question remains as to how many rats a cat might kill in a day. Dogs, in comparison, can be trained to hunt more efficiently, working as a team to flush out rats and kill them as quickly as they can catch them.
In New York City, a rat-hunting club for owners of terriers and other dogs bred as ratters has become famous. The Ryders Alley Trencher-fed Society, or R.A.T.S., has about 65 members, some of whom come from as far away as Ohio for the camaraderie and training. Eight go out on any one hunt.
“A trained dog can kill four to five rats in a minute,” says Richard Reynolds of Tenafly, N.J., who organizes the group. Some dogs specialize in diving into bags of trash to flush rats out, he explains, while others chase them down. The dogs learn to grab a rat by its neck, shake it, toss it, and move on.
It’s nearly instant death for the rats, and the hunters get a warm welcome from neighbors in rat-infested areas. “Sometimes when the dogs make a good catch, we get a standing ovation from the crowd,” Reynolds says.
As for concerns about rat welfare, which have been raised by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals, Reynolds is unapologetic. "At one time PETA called this a twisted blood sport, and I wish I hadn’t gone on national TV and said I agree,” he jokes. His group doesn’t officially work with the city’s rat-control program, but they’re friendly. City Councilman Eric Ulrich even gave the dogs a commendation in August for their service to New York City.
These rat hunters say they’re not aiming to control the rat population on their own, though. Rats depend on people for food, and ultimately the outcome of the rat wars will depend on limiting their access to garbage. “The city’s goal is to reduce the rat population by 70 percent. You can’t kill all the rats,” Reynolds says.
It may be possible, however, to keep a lot of them from ever being born. The D.C. rat control program is experimenting with birth control, in the form of a sweet liquid that rats drink from bait stations. The liquid contains a chemical that destroys the egg-containing follicles in female rats’ ovaries and impairs sperm production in males. New York City is trying it out, too.
Birth control would be easier to deploy in a large area than predators, certainly, and more humane than traps and poisons. If it works, it just might put some cats and dogs out of a job.