Rue the cat helped the owners of Greenstreet Gardens with their rodent problem. Credit: Michael Loria

As Thor Cheston remembers it, it happened in the middle of a Saturday. The weather was temperate and the taproom door at Right Proper Brewing Company in Brookland was open. Cheston, the brewery co-owner saw Prima wander out, past the guests enjoying a pint and toward the street. He didn’t expect what happened next. She dove straight into the bushes and, after a brief struggle, dragged out the body and laid it in front of the door. It was a rat, now dead.

Right Proper adopted the black-and-white cat in 2019 through Blue Collar Cats, a Humane Rescue Alliance program created in 2017 that pairs cats who aren’t suited for traditional adoption with spaces where they’ll have space to roam. Most of them aren’t ideal candidates for traditional adoption because they get depressed in confinement or they’re scared of people. 

“These cats were physically healthy,” says Erin Robinson, a former HRA program manager. “But [they] had no socialization with humans and would not themselves benefit from living inside with people. They hadn’t done it, they didn’t want it, they didn’t like it.” Living indoors was negatively impacting both their mental and physical health.

Releasing these cats outdoors isn’t an option either. They might try to return home and become disoriented; there are environmental hazards like traffic; or they might run into a “cat colony” that shares territory and doesn’t always welcome newcomers. HRA calls these “community cats.” Their notched ears indicate that they were trapped, neutered, and returned to the area by HRA. Many Blue Collar Cats are former community cats who had to be rehomed because of construction or their feeder (a designated neighborhood resident who feeds them) moved. 

Created for this niche cat population, the BCC program was inspired by barn cats, which are typically unsocialized but play an important role in their environment as pest deterrents. With few barns in D.C., Blue Collar Cats felt more appropriate.“These guys do a job,” Robinson says. “These cats are like manual labor kitties.” The goal is that, like Prima, they’ll kill any pests, or their smell will deter them. 

Prima. Credit: Michael Loria

For those with rodent problems, the right cat can be a godsend. Before Rue arrived in 2018, Greenstreet Gardens in Alexandria was losing hundreds of dollars to mice chewing through seed bags. At first, operations manager Tim Williams worried Rue was a dud—the cat with a smushed face preferred loafing on cacti. Then she entered a phase where she caught a mouse daily. Afterward, any rodent problems became minimal. Today, you’ll find her lounging on the seed bags in triumph.

The experience isn’t always like that. Rossen Tsanov adopted Sam and Lucy in 2019 to help protect the garden he keeps in Eckington. But, unlike Rue, they were ineffectual, Tsanov realized one evening, when he saw some rats scare them away from their food. “The rats punked them,” he says. “It’s like you have a kid and they’re supposed to be the track champion and then they get dead last.” Partly, he blames himself for feeding the cats in the evening when rodents are active. He started feeding the cats less food earlier in the day and hasn’t seen the rats since. “They figured out that there’s no constant supply of food,” he says. 

Tracy Stannard, owner of Broad Branch Market in Chevy Chase, reached out to HRA last year after she found herself packing up her store every night like it was a pop-up, though she never saw more than one mouse at a time on the cameras. “Mice don’t jump into a loaf of bread and eat the whole thing,” she says. “They jump into every loaf of bread.” It was her first rodent problem in 13 years of business.

But by the time Mac and Cheese arrived, Tannard had already hired a professional and had the problem taken care of. HRA adoptions director Ashley Valm says there are fewer cats in the program today as the HRA has developed better relationships with community cat feeders and the behavioral team has improved its training. They also took in fewer cats this year. Pet advocates speculate that could change as eviction moratoriums are lifted. 

The program is not currently taking applications. Previously, applicants would fill out a form online and then HRA representatives would reach out to confirm that the space would be appropriate for these cats. “We have these undersocialized cats that previously we had no outcome options for and now there are people climbing up the walls to get these cats,” Valm says. This is a good problem for a shelter to have, in her estimation, even if adopters don’t like to hear it. Similar programs are being developed at Montgomery County Animal Services and Adoption Center and Laurel Cats.

Although there’s little work at Broad Branch, Mac and Cheese now have a home in Chevy Chase. A brown tabby and a Russian blue, respectively, they stick to the basement where they have the run of the place. They can be hard to find and when found, they look at you as if you’re interrupting. Outcomes such as these—a home where the cats can thrive—are what the program aims for. “We are not a store where you go to pick up a product to solve a problem for you,” Valm says. “We are an animal welfare organization.”

For employees, the cats can be a welcome addition. “[Rue’s] been a good outlet for the employees,” Williams says. “It’s relaxing to just interact with her.” She still prefers the outdoors but in the years that she’s been at Greenstreet, she has grown comfortable with employees to the point that they can pick her up, though she meows softly in protest. 

For Tsanov, enjoying that relaxing presence, like he did growing up in Bulgaria, is part of what piqued his interest in the program. “Cats in the neighborhood bring calm, comfort,” he says. “I really like that and I missed it.” Today, Sam and Lucy are cherished neighborhood characters.

But it’s a gamble. “[The HRA] gave me the scenario,” Tsanov says. “Some of them could be more amicable and affectionate, others remain wild forever and you just keep your distance.” In this case, it turned out to be the former. Of the two, Lucy is friendlier, approaching visitors for pets while Sam watches wide-eyed from behind.

Sam and Lucy represent another program trend, which is that most cats end up with homeowners rather than at businesses. But when they arrived, some neighbors raised an eyebrow. Moving the cats somewhere new entails keeping them confined for at least two weeks until they’re accustomed to the area, but unwitting neighbors called the cops. “People walking by see a giant cage with two cats inside for two weeks and you can imagine what they’re thinking,” Tsanov says. 

Others remain skeptical of people, but the pandemic seems to have had some effect on Prima. She used to scarcely be seen during operating hours, but now she walks freely among groups of people, wandering the bar like she’s part employee, patron, and owner. “COVID has changed her,” says Bri, a bartender in the taproom. “It’s made her more social and a better cat.” She notes that children still cause her hair to stand on end.

Still, the scars she gave are hard to forget. “She’s a killer,” Cheston says. “She’s good for three pets and then she’s done with you. It’s all a ploy to bring you in close and then she can eat your face.”

This story has been updated to correct the name of the owner of Broad Branch Market.