When Alvin, Simone, and Theodore were found by Orange County Animal Services earlier this year, they were hostile to any 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 front porch of a picture-perfect farmhouse in Bear Creek, outside Siler City, Alvin lounges in the sun, while Simone is curled up on her human’s lap, enjoying pets and ear scratches.

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

“She was a slicing machine,” Barbara adds. “It took a few weeks, but they love to be wherever we are.”

As we talk, Alvin nudges up against Bill’s shins, clearly wanting attention. The little black cat is already much more social than he was when he first arrived at the Hengstenbergs’ farmhouse in Bear Creek.

Alvin and the two other cats were kept in quarantine at first, per instructions from 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 up the wall and go through a tiny, two-by-four-inch hole near the ceiling, says Barbara.

The hole didn’t lead out of the barn, just out of the workshop, so the couple was able to recapture him with a laundry basket. Now, he might roam their seven-acre property, but he always comes back for dinner.

Alvin and his “siblings” are clearly a source of constant delight to the Hengstenberg’s, and in return they’re treated like royalty. The cats enjoy canned food, a running water fountain, and a heated and air-conditioned home in the barn. The happy ending is all thanks to a new program in Orange County dubbed the “Working Barn Cat” initiative.

The program, which started taking off earlier this year, helps semiferal or free-roaming cats find forever homes in outdoor settings. Alvin, Simone, and Theodore ended up in the Hengstenbergs’ barn, but hundreds of cats have also wound up in stables, screened-in porches, and large rural homes with acres of land, with 64 already adopted out this year, says Tenille Fox, a spokeswoman for Orange County Animal Services.

“They’re fairly friendly cats, but they can’t handle the shelter environment,” says Fox of the cats who go into the Working Barn Cat program. “We do our best to give them their privacy …. Sometimes we’ll put towels up to try and help them calm down. But some cats, for whatever reason, just can’t fully accept the sounds and the smells of all the other [animals]. It’s just too much for them.”

These are cats that can’t be put on the adoption floor, because they might hiss or try to scratch humans who come near them. Before the Working Barn Cat program, the shelter was forced to euthanize these felines. Now, however, they can be adopted under the right circumstances.

Like other areas across the Triangle, Orange County is dealing with a significant feral cat problem. For years, animal services used the “catch and kill” method, a widespread tactic when it came to feral animals. When feral cats were brought in, they would be euthanized, says Tiani Schifano, the program coordinator of Orange County Animal Services.

Not only was that 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 started using a newly popularized method called Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR), where feral cats are caught, sterilized, and then released. Research shows that this is a much more effective way to manage feral cat populations, Schifano says, and the county is already seeing effects. Last year, the shelter saw 323 cats (who would otherwise have been killed) come through the TNR program. This year, they’ve seen 207 cats so far.

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

When it comes to the Working Barn Cat program, there’s not a strict screening process, but potential pet parents should be able to provide the cats with food, water, and an outdoor shelter of some kind, Fox says. That shelter needs be able to protect the cats from the elements and have dry, warm places, perhaps with a barn or straw as an insulator. The cats should also have someplace to climb to, so they can avoid predators like large dogs or coyotes.

One cat that was successfully adopted went into 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 about humans, people trying to touch him,” Fox says. “It turns out he did well in this heated garage in the winter. Then in the summer [the owners] just let him have regular ventilation.”

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

That won’t always happen with semiferal cats, says Fox. In fact, even with daily food and water, they sometimes run away. In those cases, the shelter is happy to let people try again with one of their other cats. Often, however, the animals are happy to stay safe in a new outdoor home—and even to put in a little work.

The Hengstenbergs originally turned to the Working Barn Cat program as a way to deal with their mouse problem. In addition to rescuing alpacas, the couple raises chickens, which are housed in a nearby coop in the barn. Each night, they would spot some 30 or 40 mice on an outdoor camera, flocking to the chicken feed.

“We would look at the camera at night and the floor was almost moving. It was disgusting,” Barbara says. “But I swear to God, the day [the cats] got out of the workshop, they took care of the mice. It was incredible. I think they scared most of them off. We haven’t found any remnants, but we’ve never had another mouse in there. They’re good workers.”

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

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

“We don’t have kids, so these [animals] are our kids,” Barbara says. “This is our retirement. We clean out their pens. We go in and talk to them. They’re very peaceful.”

Support independent local journalismJoin the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.       

Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.comComment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.