One of the more interesting colony caretakers I met was Howard Skolnik, owner of a highly specialized steel drum manufacturing company on the southwest side of Chicago. I went over to see Skolnik Industries to learn what role feral cats can play for a manufacturer.
Howard is a high-energy person who is passionate about many things. When you go into his office, you will see an eclectic mixture of possessions. Each one has a story. To the right of his desk are steel drums that were made into chairs by his son, Sasha. They're surprisingly comfortable. On his wall is a twisted bit of glass and metal, which looks like a piece of modern art, but it's actually the remains of a skylight that was destroyed when a major fire swept through his factory in 1987. Howard was determined to rebuild his business, which he did, and he now has over a hundred employees. After talking with him, you understand that he has a steely determination, great passion, and a calmness that's unusual.
Feral cats came into Howard's life when he decided to do some construction on his building and the work disturbed an underground network of rats. He had never seen rats in the area, but all of a sudden, he began seeing them quite a bit. He didn't want to use rat poison because rats eat it and then go into the walls of a building and die. The result is a terrible stench that requires opening the walls to remove dead rats. He also wanted to do something that was more environmentally friendly. He was talking about the issue with a friend, Maureen Duffy, who at the time was working with Tree House. She suggested feral cats as the answer to his problem.
Howard and Maureen got in touch with Jenny Schlueter, who had some feral cats that needed a new home because their caretaker had just passed away. The folks at Skolnik built a large (eight foot by four foot by four foot) cat condo, and Jenny brought over two cats, whom they named Prince and King. The cats were incredibly fearful and aggressive whenever anyone got near them.
After a couple of months in the cat condo, Prince and King were let out into the main floor of the facility, and they got right to work. They patrol an area that is sixty-five thousand square feet. The facility is impressive. The company produces a multitude of drums in an eight- hour shift. When I was there, all lines were in operation, and I watched sheets of carbon steel become welded and formed into drums and get painted right before my eyes. The facility has doors and large loading docks that are open to the outside. It would be very easy for a rat to enter. But there were none, Howard told me. Prince and King were doing an excellent job keeping them away and getting rid of any that wandered inside.
We went to go see Prince and King, who are cream-colored cats and live in the cat condo located in a quiet corner of the facility, complete with ramps and places to sleep during the day. They tend to go out into the facility at night when no one is around. When we arrived at their habitat, they were napping, but they both came out. They have gone from being fearful and aggressive to being very sweet. They came up to Howard, and he petted each one. King went out and sat among some black drums and watched me from a distance. Prince nuzzled up to Howard and eventually came over to me. It was clear they were a lot less feral then they had been when they'd first arrived.
“So what is the effect of having cats on the premises?” I asked.
“It sends a number of messages about the company. The fact that we invested in a nontoxic solution tells employees that the company wants to provide a healthy, clean place to work. It also says that the company is progressive and willing to try innovative solutions.”
“But do employees ever complain about the cats or have issues with cat allergies?”
He laughed and said, “We have to discourage employees from spending too much time with the cats. We also have to discourage people from feeding them because we kept finding empty cans of cat food around their quarters. Employees were sneaking food to them.”
“What about customers? Does it matter to them?” I asked.
“It does. Whenever I give a tour of the facility, I always ask customers if they like cats. If they do, I show them our setup for Prince and King.”
Clearly they believe it makes a difference to customers because the Cats at Work program is described on their website under the heading “Why Skolnik?”
As I left, Howard told me, “At Skolnik, everyone has a job to do, and Prince and King are part of the Skolnik team. They may not get paid in cash, but they do get a nice place to live, lots of food, and great care. And the employees are very fond of their four-legged coworkers.”