Work­ing Cats pro­gram puts res­cued fe­lines’ skills to use

Los Angeles Times - - LOS ANGELES - Jerome Camp­bell jerome. camp­bell@ latimes. com

Like the char­ac­ters played by the ac­tor who inspired his name, Pa­cino was no scaredy cat. The brown tabby had prowled the streets of Los An­ge­les, a drifter scrap­ing for his next meal.

Af­ter the cat was turned in at an L. A. County an­i­mal ser­vices shel­ter, there was lit­tle hope that Pa­cino would be adopted. He was too dis­trust­ful, too fierce, too mean.

Then Melya Ka­plan came along, look­ing for a cat with grit, street smarts and at­ti­tude.

The 10- pound, 6- ounce cat would be­come the night­time war­den at the Orig­i­nal L. A. Flower Mar­ket, mak­ing sure ro­dents didn’t get out of hand. He’s part of a group of cats re­cruited by an an­i­mal rights non­profit to f ind homes in places that could use their hard- scrabble qual­i­ties. Along with another cat named DeNiro, Pa­cino would prowl the Ital­ian side of the f lower mar­ket. Of course.

“Mother Na­ture doesn’t make mis­takes,” said Ka­plan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Voice for the An­i­mals. “We prob­a­bly just haven’t found a pur­pose for it yet.”

As part of the Work­ing Cats pro­gram, cats are res­cued from shel­ters and sent to lo­ca­tions such as po­lice sta­tions, pri­vate homes, busi­nesses and schools. The pro­gram has placed about 500 cats in nearly 50 lo­ca­tions.

Ka­plan, a fre­quent cus­tomer of the mar­ket, de­vel­oped the pro­gram in 1999 when Carl Jones, a mar­ket em­ployee, told her about the rats in the work­place. Ex­ter­mi­na­tors would spray the ware­house with poi­son, but the ver­min re­mained. Ev­ery so of­ten, a cus­tomer would spot a pair of beady eyes hid­den in the row of f low­ers.

“Any­time you heard a cus­tomer scream, you gen­er­ally knew the rats were to blame. And then I had to stop what I was do­ing and go chase the lit­tle thing away,” said Jones, who has worked at the mar­ket 15 years. “It def­i­nitely wasn’t the high­light of my job.”

Scott Yam­abe, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Orig­i­nal L. A Flower Mar­ket, said the fa­cil­ity had bat­tled rats since the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen- tury. All kinds of things were tried to get rid of the rats, but the re­sults were al­ways the same: nib­bled- on f low­ers.

“The ro­dents even chewed through the wooden re­frig­er­a­tor doors where we kept the f low­ers,” said Yam­abe. “Those rats were too smart. We re­ally needed help.”

About 15 years ago, Ka­plan made a propo­si­tion to Yam­abe. She would de­liver three cats to the mar­ket. And if they could not take care of the ro­dents, she would take them back. The mar­ket now has 15 cats, and Jones and Yam­abe said they do not see any rats.

Ka­plan at­tributes the pro­gram’s suc­cess to the fact that adding a preda­tor to an en­vi­ron­ment will scare away its prey. Once ro­dents smell a cat, they go some­where else, she said.

“It’s not any­thing new. Peo­ple used to have barn cats or church cats to keep out ro­dents,” Ka­plan said. “We just brought [ it] to the city, and it seems to be re­ally work­ing.”

Yam­abe re­mem­bered one gray cat that died af­ter sev­eral years of ser­vice pa­trolling the sec­ond- f loor park­ing lot. Within days, the rats re­turned and Yam­abe needed to call for another cat.

“It was un­be­liev­able. The rats re­turned like they never left,” Yam­abe re­called. “And they dis­ap­peared just as fast when a new cat ap­peared. Those cats make a real dif­fer­ence.”

Re­cently, a cream and white cat hid be­hind an iron grate door dur­ing hours. Its eyes stood out from a dark­ened cor­ner while a pa­tron passed with petu­nias. The cats can be dif­fi­cult to spot dur­ing the day be­cause most are still shy around peo­ple.

For a cat like Pa­cino, liv­ing in a ware­house al­most cer­tainly adds years to his life. Ka­plan said cats that might have lived fewer than five years on the streets can live more than 14 years in a home. They’re given meals and the build­ings give them pro­tec­tion from bad weather, dogs and cars.

And for cats that lived most of their lives on the street be­fore end­ing up in a shel­ter, a pro­gram like Work­ing Cats can be a life­saver, Ka­plan said. It’s not easy to f ind adop­tive homes for cats, and that’s es­pe­cially true of those that have not been so­cial­ized around hu­mans. In 2014, L. A. County eu­th­a­nized nearly 19,000 cats, about 70% of those that en­tered shel­ters.

Ka­plan said that some of her vet­eran cats got used to be­ing around peo­ple and be­came house cats, which cre­ated space for other cats to be res­cued by the pro­gram.

“We’re sav­ing cats and help­ing peo­ple. And it’s al­ways great when the two grow closer to­gether and we can place another cat,” she said. “It’s what I call a win- win- win.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

AF­TER BUSI­NESS HOURS, cats res­cued from shel­ters through the Work­ing Cats pro­gram start their pa­trol in the Los An­ge­les Flower Mar­ket. Their scent alone is enough to keep ro­dents away.

BE­CAUSE THE CATS are pro­tected from dan­gers such as bad weather, cars and star­va­tion, the pro­gram adds years to their lives.

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