With new Working Barn Cats initiative, wild cats in Orange County get jobs


When Alvin, Simone and Theodore were found by Orange County Animal Services earlier this year, they were hostile to human contact. The trio of black cats had to be trapped from a distance, using baited cages and catch poles.

Eight months later, the change in their behavior is remarkable. On the porch of a picture-perfect farmhouse in Bear Creek, outside of Siler City, Alvin basks in the sun, while Simone curls up in her human’s lap, enjoying pets and scratching her ears.

“When we got Simone, they actually had to put a blanket over her cage,” says Bill Hengstenberg, who adopted the three cats with his wife Barbara in March. “They said, ‘She’s so wild, if you even get close to the crate, she’ll scratch you. It’s amazing the change.

“It was a slicing machine,” adds Barbara. “It took a few weeks, but they love being where we are.”

As we talk, Alvin leans against Bill’s shins, clearly wanting attention. The little black cat is already much more sociable than he was when he arrived at the Hengstenberg farm in Bear Creek.

Alvin and the other two cats were initially quarantined as instructed by animal shelter staff, but that didn’t stop him from launching an escape attempt. At one point, Alvin hid under the stairs, waiting for his chance to climb the wall and go through a small two-by-four-inch hole near the ceiling, Barbara says.

The hole didn’t come out of the barn, just the workshop, so the couple were able to pick it up with a laundry basket. Now he can roam their seven-acre property, but he always comes back for dinner.

Alvin and his “siblings” are clearly a constant source of pleasure for the Hengstenbergs, and in return they are treated like royalty. The cats appreciate canned food, a running water fountain and a heated and air-conditioned house in the barn. The happy ending is due to a new program in Orange County called the “Working Barn Cat” initiative.

The program, which began to take off earlier this year, helps semi-feral or free-roaming cats find forever homes in outdoor settings. Alvin, Simone and Theodore ended up in the Hengstenbergs’ barn, but hundreds of cats also ended up in stables, screened porches and large rural homes with acres of land, with 64 already adopted this year, Tenille says Fox, spokesperson for Orange County Animal Services.

“They’re pretty friendly cats, but they can’t handle the shelter environment,” Fox says of the cats that participate in the Working Barn Cat program. “We do our best to give them their privacy…. Sometimes we put towels on to try to help them calm down. But some cats, for whatever reason, just can’t fully accept the sounds and smells of everyone else. [animals]. It’s too much for them. »

These are cats that cannot be put up for adoption, as they may hiss or try to scratch humans who approach them. Prior to the Working Barn Cat program, the shelter was required to euthanize these felines. Now, however, they can be adopted under the right circumstances.

Like other areas of the Triangle, Orange County has a significant feral cat problem. For years, animal services have used the “catch and kill” method, a popular tactic when dealing with wild animals. When feral cats were brought in, they were euthanized, says Tiani Schifano, program coordinator for Orange County Animal Services.

Not only was this method inhumane, according to many animal rights activists, but it was also often ineffective. When feral cats were removed from a particular territory, others would simply move in and claim it, Schifano says. In 2019, Orange County Animal Services began using a newly popularized method called Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR), where feral cats are captured, neutered, and then released. Research shows it’s a much more effective way to manage feral cat populations, Schifano says, and the county is already seeing the effects. Last year, the shelter saw 323 cats (which otherwise would have been killed) go through the TNR program. This year they have seen 207 cats so far.

In the long term, Schifano hopes to see fewer than 100 feral cats roaming Orange County.

When it comes to the Working Barn Cat program, there’s no strict screening process, but prospective parents should be able to provide cats with food, water and some sort of outdoor shelter, Fox says. . This shelter should be able to protect the cats from the elements and have dry, warm places, perhaps with a barn or straw as insulation. Cats also need a place to climb to avoid predators like large dogs or coyotes.

A cat that was successfully adopted went to a heated garage.

“[The owners] really just kind of fell in love with this cat. He had the sweetest face, but he was really unpredictable with humans, people trying to touch him,” Fox says. “Turns out he was doing fine in that heated garage in the winter. Then in the summer [the owners] just let it have regular ventilation.

Likewise, at the animal shelter, Alvin, Simone and Theodore were “very responsive,” Fox says. “But once they got into an environment that they were more comfortable with, where they could live more on their terms, they got really friendly and even wanted to let people pet them.”

That won’t always happen with semi-feral cats, Fox says. In fact, even with daily food and water, they sometimes run away. In these cases, the shelter is happy to allow people to try again with one of their other cats. Often, however, pets are happy to stay safe in a new, outdoor home and even do a little work.

The Hengstenbergs first turned to the Working Barn Cat program to solve their mouse problem. In addition to rescuing alpacas, the couple raise chickens, which are housed in a nearby chicken coop in the barn. Every night, they spotted some 30 or 40 mice on an outdoor camera, flocking to feed the chickens.

“We were looking at the camera at night and the ground was almost moving. It was disgusting,” Barbara says. “But I swear to God, the day [the cats] out of the workshop, they took care of the mice. It was amazing. I think they scared off most of them. We didn’t find any remains, but we never had another mouse in there. They are good workers.

The Hengstenbergs care deeply about their animals, especially their rescues. The alpacas they raise are all from bad situations, suffering from terrible injuries, deadly diseases or simply left for dead. Likewise, Alvin, Simone and Theodore came to the couple in poor condition. The cats had been treated for fleas, vaccinated, neutered and neutered at the animal shelter, but life on the streets left its mark. Seeing the cats as they are now — playful, social, and with lovely long fur coats — is its own reward, Barbara says.

As retirees, Bill and Barbara don’t have too many obligations. They moved from Connecticut to North Carolina about three years ago, where they also had a farm. Now they spend their golden years sitting outside, caring for their animals and pursuing their hobbies. Barbara paints, while Bill works on wood. And of course, they have a million stories about cats: the way the three of them cuddle around Bill’s legs when he heats up their food. The strange places Théodore travels during the day. The time Simone got stuck on the gazebo roof.

“We don’t have children, so these [animals] are our children,” says Barbara. “It’s our retreat. We clean their enclosures. We go in and talk to them. They are very peaceful.


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Jennifer R. Strohm