August 18, 2018 9:48 am

‘Just an abundance of cats’: feral, stray and breeding felines overwhelm small Ontario city

A small Ontario city is being overrun by cats. Abigail Bimman takes us to Cornwall and tells us why so many people aren't smitten by the kittens.

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There is a flurry of feline facts about Cornwall.

One third of all SPCA cats in the province of Ontario reside in the city, which has fewer than 50,000 people. The Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry SPCA cares for 2,000 cats a year.

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In 2017, the shelter took in 764 strays alone.

To put that in perspective, the city of Markham, Ont., has more than seven times the number of human residents as Cornwall, but less than one third the number of stray cats (217 in 2017).

A kitten waits to be adopted at the OSCPA in Cornwall, Ontario.

Abigail Bimman/Global News

But if you ask the people in Cornwall, they’re less likely to ream off numbers. They’re more likely to phrase it like resident Brian Hannan:

“There’s so many cats around, it’s crazy.”

And, Cornwall residents in cat-infused neighbourhoods are quick to tell you about the smell of cat pee they put up with on hot summer days.

“When you walk by some houses, absolutely, it’s pretty bad,” said Nikki Scharf, who lives on Bedford Street, particularly notorious for strays.

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Most people you ask, though, don’t know why their city has this problem. The OSCPA animal centre manager doesn’t know, nor did any city councilors offer a clue.

The over-population problem is so serious, in May the city’s chief building official authored a report recommending a cat by-law. It had a number of suggestions: all cats need to be spayed, neutered and registered. Felines should be kept inside, in an enclosed area outdoors, or harnessed.

Most controversial (and difficult to enforce), the proposed bylaw says anyone who feeds a stray cat would legally become its owner.

But the report didn’t tackle the root cause of the problem. Its author, Christopher Rogers, ignored multiple interview requests from Global News, instead referencing his report in emails and writing that “further developments of significance” are expected in the fall.

Many in Cornwall are not smitten by all the kittens, and some people are frustrated nothing has happened yet.

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“It’s maddening, said Mary Jane Proulx, a volunteer with Roy and Cher’s Rescue Farm.

“The problem is, many years ago the city of Cornwall dropped the ball,” said Proulx, who is also running for city council on a single-issue cat platform.

“We should have money in the budget every year, and they haven’t been doing that, and now there’s just an abundance of cats.”

Rescue Farm founder Angie Parker has some ideas as to the root problem.

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“Cornwall has a lot of low-income residents, and spaying and neutering your animal costs a lot,” she said.

“I also feel that people are viewing these animals more as objects instead of family members. … You don’t see very many stray dogs.”

Animal groups agree getting fixed is the best way to fix the problem.

Roy and Cher’s Rescue Farm practices TNR — that’s trap, neuter and release. They’ve spayed or neutered 140 cats since 2014, working with a vet who’s been patient with payment. They currently owe $5,000.

A cat house used by volunteers with Roy and Cher’s Rescue Farm, to allow stray cat to find shelter in the winter.

Abigail Bimman / Global News

The local OSPCA branch describes its $350,000 annual budget as “strained,” with cats taking up the majority of the branch’s time and money.

Animal centre manager Carol Link won’t weigh in on the specific by-law proposals on the table, but said she’s glad “the city is taking the problem seriously.”

“Our concern is that the animals are well taken care of here, and that we’re educating the public.”

The biggest educational message is to spay or neuter pets, and try and keep them indoors or at least on the owner’s properly.

A cat bats the camera at the OSCPA in Cornwall.

Abigail Bimman / Global News

About a third of Cornwall’s cat population is feral. Those cats roam around in so-called colonies, and they’re harder to trap.

Stray cats are different — they’re used to some interaction with humans. They may have been left behind when people moved, or born to pets, but then dumped along with their litter. (The city report notes one female cat can give birth to as many as 41 kittens a year.)

“A lot of people that are bringing litters of kittens in. We’ve seen them a couple of times before,” Link said.

“This is not their cat’s first litter, and they’re saying they would love to have their cat fixed but they can’t afford to have their cat fixed.”

As residents wait for council to make a decision on a by-law, there is some help coming in the form of an OSPCA mobile spay and neuter clinic in October. It will spend two days in Cornwall and two days in Pembroke, Ont.

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Many feel that’s just a drop in the bucket for a larger problem.

Proulx says she’s been watching the cat population grow for years, and that this summer was particularly bad. “Every day, (more) kittens and kittens.”

“This is why I’m running,” Proulx said of her shot at a council seat.

“We have to get awareness out there. We need money. We do. Because it’s not going away.”

Current city councillor Claude McIntosh says potential funds will be discussed as part of the 2019 budget. He says he’ll vote in favour of a cat bylaw, but he’s concerned new kitty laws will just be a band-aid solution.

“My question is, how do you enforce a bylaw? We might be better off rounding up a pied piper,” McIntosh said.

He thinks the problem is less about cats, and more about irresponsible cat owners.

“You can’t legislate common sense, though, that’s the problem.”

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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