UPTOWN — Have a rat problem in Chicago? Get in line.
Paul Nickerson, manager of Treehouse Humane Society's Cats at Work program, said after returning to work full-time after a hip replacement, he and another part-time employee are quickly whittling down a six-month backlog of requests from residents and business owners desperate for a solution to the city's ongoing rat plague.
At one point, at least one restaurateur had offered to pay Nickerson "a couple hundred dollars extra" to place him at the front of the line, fearful rats inside the eatery wouldn't be gone by the time the business opened to the public.
Listen to Linze Rice explain the Feral Cat program to fight rats.
"If people found out I was bumping people to the front of the list they would kill me," Nickerson said. "I just can't do it, it's just not fair to everybody."
It's not just Tree House responding to the rat crisis with cats via the trap-neuter-return method, known as TNR.
For the second year, PAWS Chicago is celebrating National Feral Cat day by organizing 40 volunteers to help build winter-proof shelters for its Community Cats program before a potentially brutal winter.
Those who wish to volunteer can do so from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday at the organization's medical center, 3516 W. 26th St.
Nickerson said the wait is now down to about three months at this point, save for a handful of people in line who have been waiting for about six months — though those cats should be placed in the next week or so.
As he and his helper keep making their way down the list, Nickerson said his hope is to eventually streamline the process so participants only wait about six weeks for cat placement.
Nickerson said after DNAinfo published a story in March 2015 about the Cats at Work program when the Children's Memorial Hospital in Lincoln Park was torn down, the demand among Chicagoans for the cats skyrocketed.
"Ever since then it's just been a domino effect," Nickerson said. "It's just exploded. Rats are such an emotional issue to begin with anyway, people just want a solution that works."
The number of rats in the city has also exploded with a 34 percent increase in the number of rodent complaints from Sept. 1-Oct. 25, according to city data.
Rats have become such a nuisance in Chicago that 18 Streets and Sanitation crews will now be dedicated to tracking those complaints, in addition to the newly created Bureau of Rodent Control.
That department will have 120 employees — and a $10.2 million budget — to reduce the number of disease-ridden critters scurrying through Chicago's streets and alleys.
So far, PAWS has placed more than 600 cats from throughout the city into colonies through its trap-neuter-return program, while Nickerson said he hopes to double his 2015 total of 150 cats by the end of the year.
He said he's on track to surpass that at 320, a feat he said he's proud of not only because until Monday he headed the program alone, but because it feels good to help animals.
"These cats certainly would have been put down before, so knowing you had a hand in saving 260 little lives that would have been put down before because they don't have a home ... it just feels really good, it's really rewarding," Nickerson said. "There was a time in my life when I lived in the corporate world and was making three times the money I'm making now, but I was never fulfilled — it always came back to working with animals in some way."
Though the cats he helps rescue and place are feral and not domesticated, Nickerson said people willing to shell out the few hundred dollars it costs for a colony should "maximize" their experience with the cats by "spoiling" them when possible because owners are "competing with the rest of the neighborhood."
Feeding the cats on a rigid schedule at the same time, twice daily, and providing heating pads during the winter are two ways to help entice the cats to return to their shelters, he said.
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