“A Cat Digression” from my St. Thomas Dog Blog Mar. 23, 2010
There are unsung heroes among us. Almost everyone knows one or two, or at least has encountered them. They’re usually not thought of as heroic or civic-minded. Instead they’re a code word for loneliness with a bit of looniness thrown in. In cautionary tales of self-help articles and advice from well-intentioned relatives, you might hear something like, “and if you keep on acting like this, you’ll end up being one of those cat ladies”.
Almost every community has at least one – the person who quietly feeds and shelters stray and feral cats. They use their own resources, even paying for neutering and medical treatment out of their own pocket. If you want to get a cat, they’re often your closest resource. They’re happy to find homes for the cats that want homes. They may be your most relied upon resource if you want to solve your problem with an unwanted cat or a stray that’s hanging around your house. But to people neither acquiring nor getting rid of cats, they’re probably just seen as eccentric at best, a hoarder or crazy person at worst.
Years ago, I was seen as the cat lady of the village I then lived in. I suppose it all fit. I lived alone in an old ramshackle house, I wasn’t from there, I had no visible means of support and kept odd hours. And I kept chickens and had three cats. I realized this one fall when children began coming to my door with kittens or adult cats. It seemed there had been a lot of cats dumped off in our town that summer. The kids, looking scared out of their minds, would hold up a tiny kitten or bedraggled old moggy and say “Mam said you’d be able to help with this cat. We can’t keep her and Mam said you’d know what to do.” I tried taking the cats in, at least until I could figure out what to do with them. But my cats wouldn’t let me become a real cat lady. My mother and son cats loathed other cats. The third cat was a stray that had simply refused to leave despite their best efforts to drive him off. When new cats began coming in the house, the three bonded and became a tag team of terror toward any new arrival. After fearing for the lives of the new strays until I could get them safely to the SPCA shelter, I had to refuse to take any more. And so ended my career as a cat lady.
One of the best known “cat ladies” in Canada is a man. For 21 years, René Chartrand looked after the feral cat colony at Parliament Hill in Ottawa. If you go behind the Parliamentary Library and walk along the river, you’ll see a wrought iron fence. Inside there, on the hill, is the cats’ headquarters. Mr. Chartrand built a condominium of shelter boxes for them. The roofs are of the same style as the Parliament Buildings. There are verandahs running along the sides with food and water bowls. There are donation boxes on the fence to help with the costs.
It’s a long-standing colony of cats, from long-ago Parliamentary mousers, cats from vessels on the Ottawa River and ones that have been dumped or strays that found their way there. For many years they have been helped by the kindness of strangers. The first long-term caretaker was Irene Desormeaux in the 1970s. She fed them, got veterinary care for them and began neuter and release efforts. Mr. Chartrand took over responsibility for them after her death in 1987. He retired in 2008 and a small group of his helpers continues to care for the cats. You can read about the cats and see pictures of them on their blog. There’s lots of articles and information on them on the web.
Most feral cat colonies and cat ladies aren’t as well known as Ottawa’s. But every city and village has them. Without the efforts of the cat ladies, the feral cat population would be a much greater problem than it is. So, if you notice someone buying cat food by the case, try to find out why. If they’re feeding strays, buy a couple more cans of food or treats and put them in their shopping bag. They’ll appreciate the help.
Mr. Chartrand died Dec. 7, 2014 at the age of 92. After the last Parliament Hill cat, Bugsy, was adopted in January 2013, the cat colony was officially closed and the Cat Parliament Buildings demolished. Thank you, Mr. Chartrand.