Unlike other strays that might rub up against a leg hoping for a crumb or a head rub, these felines are so unaccustomed to human contact that they dart away when people approach. Feral cats cannot be turned into house pets. When they end up in municipal shelters, they have little hope of coming out alive.
But one animal welfare group has figured out a way to save their lives and put them to work in Los Angeles. The Working Cats program of Voice for the Animals, a Los Angeles-based animal advocacy and rescue group, has placed feral cats in a handful of police stations with rodent problems, just as the group placed cats in the rat-plagued downtown flower district several years ago -- to great effect.
Six feral cats were recently installed as ratters in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division, and another group will be housed at the Central Division early in the new year.
Their reputation as furtive and successful exterminators grew after feral cats were introduced to the parking lot of the Wilshire Division nearly six years ago. Rats had been burrowing into the equipment bags that bicycle officers stored in outside cages; inside the facility, mice were sometimes scurrying across people's desks.
"Once we got the cats, problem solved," said Cmdr. Kirk Albanese, a captain at the Wilshire station at the time. "I was almost an immediate believer."
After Albanese moved to the Foothill Division in the northern San Fernando Valley, he introduced feral cats to the building's mice-infested basement in 2004.
"I think it's a very humane way to deal with a very stubborn problem," said Albanese, now assistant to the director in the office of operations at Parker Center, which has its own rat problem.
The cats don't generally solve the rodent problem by killing rats and mice -- although the cats are game for doing so if they catch them. Rather, the cats simply leave their scent. Once rodents get a whiff of feline presence, like gangsters under a gang injunction, they move on.
"It's the smell of the cat and the cat urine," said animal rescuer Jane Garrison, a member of Voice for the Animals' board, who selected the half dozen feral cats for the Southeast station.
Less grisly than glue traps -- and usually more effective -- the cats go about their "work" naturally: "They prowl, they eat, they sit in the sun," said Melya Kaplan, founder and director of Voice for the Animals, who was responsible for putting cats in the flower markets.
Sometimes they rest under police cars or on top of the warm car hoods. When the cats are new to an area -- as they are at Southeast -- they spend much of their time hiding from view.
"They've got to play it safe and see if they're OK," said Southeast Officer Sandra Magdaleno, who feeds and cares for the cats.
Magdaleno, who has been rescuing animals for 25 years, can describe each of her elusive crew: two black cats, two gray and whites, a tabby and a huge gray bruiser who hissed at everyone during his days in the holding cages that the cats are confined to while they acclimate. When his cage was opened, the big bad boy timidly looked out.
"He jumped out of the cage and looked around, then he heard a car and jumped back in," said Magdaleno.
"You're like the cat whisperer," Officer Mark Miraglia deadpanned.
Garrison worked with two shelters to select the most feral cats possible. (If a cat suddenly gets friendly, the animal is pulled from the pool and, with any luck, is adopted.) The cats were then spayed or neutered, vaccinated, micro-chipped and ear-tipped (under anesthesia while the cats are being altered, vets notch an ear tip, the widely recognized sign that a cat is altered).
Then the cats were moved to the Southeast Division, put in large wire holding cages and housed in a shed for a month for the process of re-colonizing.
"You can't just take feral cats and put them in one location and expect them to stay," Kaplan said. "A feral cat will kill himself trying to get back to his old location."