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Feral cat figurines on a sidewalk

Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

The city that purrs: Getting to know Chicago’s feral cats

The feral cats are hungry. It’s a sunny winter morning in Chicago’s South Deering neighborhood, and a tortoiseshell cat waits patiently next to a blue hatchback while another stalks the sidewalk from a distance.

Liz Houtz and Erica Roewade, co-founders of Cats in Action, pull several long cages out of their car, fill them with food and begin placing them on porches and in yards where feral cats are congregating — all with the neighbors’ permission, of course.

Houtz and Roewade are here to trap feral cats.

For the past few weeks, Dora Cuellar, who lives on this block, has been acclimating the feral cats to a regular feeding schedule, per Houtz and Roewade’s instructions. Today, she’s in charge of knocking on doors or calling her neighbors to make sure it’s okay to enter their property to get to the cats. Everyone says yes.

When Chicagoans like Cuellar give Houtz and Roewade a call, the two start by prepping the area, then trap as many cats as they can and take them to get spayed or neutered. Some of the cats will return to the block in a few days as part of an official feral cat colony — which just means a group of feral cats that more or less stay together. Cuellar has already volunteered to take care of the colony, making her one of several hundred residential caretakers Cats in Action works with.

What is a feral cat?

What is a feral cat?

A feral cat is an unsocialized cat that avoids humans, according to Cecilia Ocampo-Solis at Tree House Humane Society. A true feral cat will not meow and will generally hide from people, though it may accept food. But ferality exists on a spectrum, and some feral cats may occasionally meow or allow themselves a chin rub from a human while preferring overall to live apart from them. According to Liz Houtz of Cats in Action, most cats can be socialized within their first two months of life; after that, some may acclimate to humans, while others will remain feral.

The Chicago area has one of the most progressive feral cat policies in the nation. That’s in large part because Cook County is one of just a handful of large metropolitan counties in the U.S. where Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is legal and residents can become recognized caretakers of feral cat colonies.

When a listener asked Curious City what’s up with the city’s feral cats, we tagged along with Cats in Action to see how feral cat colonies get started and spoke with staff at an animal shelter that’s putting cats to work in the city. We also heard from more than a dozen Chicago-area residents about their experiences with feral cats.

It turns out there’s a whole community of people in Chicago taking care of and bonding with the city’s feral felines. At the same time, there's tension with members of local birding groups, who think cats pose an outsize risk to native birds.

And at the center of it all, there are feral cats — somewhere around 300,000 of them, according to people who work with feral cats, though official numbers aren’t available — that call the area home.

The ordinance that made Cook County a feral cat haven — and the rat problem keeping cats busy

Cecilia Ocampo-Solis has been the community programs manager at Tree House Humane Society in West Ridge since 2021. So she remembers well the headlines that year, when media outlets reported the shelter was “releas[ing] 1,000 feral cats onto Chicago streets.”

“We don't have an army of cats patrolling for rats,” she clarified, during a recent interview at the humane society’s cat café.

To understand how the confusion started, we have to go back to 2007, when Cook County passed an ordinance that legalized TNR and allowed residents to become “caretakers” of feral cat colonies.

 Before the law passed, municipal departments were responsible for responding to calls about feral cats in the area.

An administrator from the Cook County Department of Animal and Rabies Control told WTTW that before the ordinance passed, the county was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trapping and euthanizing feral cats — with little effect on their population.

“People were struggling with what to do, where to go, [the fact] that the cats just kept reproducing,” Houtz of Cats in Action said. “There weren't a lot of resources for people.”

But after the law passed, the responsibility of dealing with feral cats fell to TNR organizations: nonprofits like Cats in Action and Tree House that trap feral cats, neuter or spay them and return them to their communities. A huge benefit of the ordinance, according to Houtz, was that it reduced the number of feral cats being euthanized — while also reducing the overall feral cat population by sterilizing them.

There was also what TNR advocates call an ancillary benefit: rat control. Chicago was just named the “rattiest” city in the U.S. by Orkin for the ninth consecutive year. Cats, conveniently, love to hunt rats, and help keep them off people’s property. (Though there isn’t any scientific evidence that they reduce rat populations overall.)

Tree House started their “Cats at Work” program in 2012. This program and others like it were efforts by non-profit organizations to place cats that were not a good fit for adoption in areas that could use them, often because they were besieged by rats.

The ordinance made it possible for Tree House to start the Cats at Work program. But colonies that originate through programs like this one today make up just a fraction of Chicago’s feral cat colonies. (Most cat colonies develop "organically" because a group of cats is already hanging out in a certain area.)


Regardless of how a colony originates, according to the county ordinance, all feral cat caretakers must be vetted by non-profit “sponsors.” Caretakers agree to sterilize and vaccinate the cats and provide them with food, water and outdoor shelters, among other responsibilities.

By registering caretakers and providing them with resources, in line with the county ordinance, it aims to manage the number of feral cats through sterilization and ensure the cats that are there will be well looked after — while in some cases alleviating the frustration of residents who don’t want rodents in their yards.

Chicago’s feral cats and their caretakers

When Rob Crowder first moved to the Roscoe Village neighborhood, one of the first things he noticed was the rodent activity, in both his front yard and back. “There were rats everywhere,” he said.

Crowder wasn’t a cat person, but he knew about Tree House’s Cats at Work program and put his name on the waiting list.

Now Crowder has two feral cats, Washington and Drake. Like many colony caretakers, he has a cat shelter in his backyard made out of a large storage bin lined with insulation, and a warming mat inside. “It’s 72 degrees in there, even in the middle of winter,” he said.

The cats have proven to be good hunters, sometimes bringing him dead rats and leaving them on his back stairs. “We sometimes hear some sounds in the alley, and when we do, we know the cats are at work,” he said. “I’ve learned to love these cats.”

While Crowder sought the cats out to help with his rat problem, in Cook County, the vast majority of colonies get started because cats are already congregating in a particular area, according to Houtz and Roewade.

Take Belinda and Agustin Fuentes, who live on the far South Side near the Indiana border. They’ve cared for roughly 50 feral cats over the years, by Belinda’s estimate, and the cats just keep showing up.

 Because their zip code is considered a priority area for TNR services, they receive a discount on spay and neuter surgeries through PAWS, the city’s largest no-kill shelter.

Ten cats have stayed with the Fuentes family in the last 10 years, either as indoor cats — if they could be socialized — or as feral cats that live outdoors and winter in their garage. Currently they’ve got five feral cats hanging out under their deck and in their garage, and roaming the neighborhood.

Agustin wakes up at 5:30 every morning to feed them, rain or shine, even on mornings when he just wants to stay in bed. “Our motto is, ‘It’s not their fault,’” he said.

For Emily Edelman, who lives in Tri-Taylor, one of the most surprising things about the feral cats that live in her backyard is how playful they are. Three-year-old Bernard loves to entertain himself with cat toys, and unconfined by walls or furniture, he runs all over. “I didn't expect them to be so much fun to watch,” Edelman said. “It’s like National Geographic.”

Before she got Scout and Bernard, Edelman says the rats in her yard were so big and so bold — scurrying right across her feet at night — that she was considering moving. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she said.

Meanwhile, Scout and Bernard were on a euthanasia list because they were considered too feral to be adopted. For Edelman, it was a match made in heaven. When she went through cancer treatment and spent much of her time at home, getting up to feed the cats and watching them from her window was hugely comforting. “It gave me something to look forward to,” she said.

A “birdbath full of blood”

Judy Pollock loves birds. She started birding a few decades ago and has been president of the Chicago Bird Alliance since 2019. Today, there’s nothing she enjoys more than seeing migrating birds fill her backyard in the spring and fall.

But she also has firsthand experience with what she believes were feral cats that made use of her garden.

“I remember waking up one morning with my birdbath full of blood,” Pollock said. “... It's very upsetting to see these cats prowling around trying to [kill] the birds.”

The reality is cats are not native to Chicago — or even to the U.S. — while many birds are.

For the Chicago Bird Alliance and even national organizations like PETA, feral cats are a big deal because of the threat they pose to native wildlife including birds.

“We would like to see cats stay indoors,” Pollock said. “It's the safest for cats and it's definitely the safest for birds.”

Pollock said some feral cats could become house cats. And she’d love to see more people make use of “catios” — outdoor enclosures that allow cats to spend time outside while preventing them from hunting.

But of course the fact that feral cats hunt is a big reason people like having them around: to hunt rats.

Plus, not all feral cats can live inside.

Long Grove resident Elizabeth, who asked us not to use her full name, learned this the hard way when she adopted a feral cat named Moose over a decade ago. He was incredibly shy at first, but she wanted a house cat and assumed he’d warm up over time.

But in the seven years she had Moose, Elizabeth said he remained feral. He kept to himself and would scratch anyone who tried to touch him. “Moose did not love us,” she said with a laugh. “He didn't even like us. He tolerated our presence.”

“I mean, he was as happy as a cat could get, for someone who did not like his family,” she continued. “But he never let us pet him. … [And] the way we would have to get Moose into a carrier for vet visits was an annual source of awfulness.”

In hindsight, Elizabeth said if she’d known about feral cat colonies at the time, she would’ve considered having Moose be part of one.

For truly antisocial cats, there really isn’t much of an alternative. Right now, the main options are to make them unwilling house cats or place them in outdoor feral cat colonies. Shelters don’t have the space or resources to care indefinitely for cats that will never be adopted. The previous policy, of putting antisocial cats on euthanasia lists by default, is hard for most people to stomach.

Crowder, the Roscoe Village resident with two feral cats, said he occasionally gets complaints from neighbors, but they’re usually from people who are concerned about the cats’ welfare and don’t want to see them outdoors. He sometimes shows them the cat shelter, with its temperature-controlled interior, and explains that in his view this is the best possible life for them.

“I have to remind people that these cats would have been put down if we didn't take them,” he said. “We’re grateful for them every single day.”

Editor’s note: Part of this story was originally reported for an episode of WBEZ’s The Rundown.

Justin Bull is a producer for WBEZ’s The Rundown. Follow him @justybull

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