Have a gopher, mouse or rat problem in your barn, at your winery or on your farm? The Lodi Animal Shelter has an environmentally friendly option for you — and it’s good for cats, too.
The shelter is offering local residents the opportunity to adopt a feral cat that can be used at wineries, farms, ranches and businesses or homes with acreage to hunt for mice, gophers, rats and other destructive rodents.
“A lot of these places don’t want mice coming in, and this is what cats are born and bred to do,” said Jennifer Bender, the shelter supervisor.
Since the shelter started the barn cat program last February, it has adopted out five cats that are now on the prowl in their new homes.
The shelter wants to create a bigger push for the barn cat program, Bender said, because this is the only way to find homes for cats that could otherwise not be adopted.
Of the 672 cats put to sleep in 2011 at the shelter, 145 — or 21 percent — were feral
“They deserve to be able to live their life out, but you can’t touch them. The only way we can adopt them out is through the barn cat program,” Bender said.
Prospective barn cat homes must have a barn, stable area or outdoor building where the cat can live. People also need to give the cats long-term veterinary care and provide daily food and water, because barn cats cannot survive on rodents alone, Bender said.
For the first two weeks, the cat also needs to be in a secure area, so they can get acclimated to their new home before being allowed to roam.
All of the barn cats are spayed or neutered, have the feline leukemia and rabies vaccines, and are ear-tipped so people will know they are fixed, Bender said.
To get a feral cat, Lodi residents need to fill out an application and pay the $30 fee that covers medical costs.
With the hope of growing Lodi’s program, the Lodi Animal Commission heard a presentation Monday night from Debra Webster, who coordinates a successful program in the Mother Lode to adopt out feral cats.
Webster operates the “My Barn Cats” program through Animal Outreach, a nonprofit cat shelter. Since she started the program two years ago, they have adopted out more than 400 cats, about three to five a week.
The cats that end up in the Mother Lode shelter basically fill out “an application” to see if they will be good barn cats, Webster said. All future barn cats must have all their claws and teeth, be between 6 months and 6 years of age and must be either short hair or medium hair.
Long-hair feral cats cannot be groomed, and will get matted or stickers in their hair if they are allowed to roam as barn cats, Webster said.
Female cats who have had a litter are preferred because they have good hunting instincts to provide for their offspring, she said.
When a feral cat comes into the Animal Outreach Shelter, Webster first tries to get it spayed and neutered and returned to where it was picked up, similar to the trap, neuter, release program in Lodi.
But they can become barn cats if they cannot be returned because property owners are threatening to poison them, their previous caretaker has died or there is some other safety concern, Webster said.
She started the program after an owner of a restaurant in the Mother Lode with a feral cat problem agreed to work with Webster to get 13 cats neutered. But then a few months later, the owner had them euthanized.
“I was so heartbroken, and thought if only we could have some place to keep them and find them a new home,” Webster said.
Since then, she has dedicated herself to the barn cat program, often working seven days a week.
“These cats don’t have a future. If they can get three to five years, I’m happy,” Webster said.
One of her main successes was with Saluti Cellars in El Dorado County, which took 15 cats to get rid of gophers.
“Wineries are wonderful homes because they have fencing to keep the deer out and as a result they keep the coyotes out, so they are a safe place for the cats,” Webster said.
One of the advantages of Webster’s Mother Lode program is they can provide the cats for free — although they suggest a $25 donation per cat — because of grants they have received. Webster also does home visits before giving out the cats.
Because of limited staffing at the Lodi shelter, Bender said they are not able to do home visits. She hopes a nonprofit eventually takes over the barn cat program because they could dedicate more time to it and get grants that could reduce the fee for people, Bender said.
Lodi resident Linda Castelanelli said the goal is to find another way to deal with the feral cat problem.
“We can adopt them out and then they will not have to be euthanized,” she said.