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100,000 homeless cats?By Suzanne Rent | Sep 6, 2012
Tags: Halifax, stray cats
Halifax has a big stray-cat problem. A few hardworking volunteers are trying to solve it.
It’s a cold, grey and foggy evening in the Greystone area of Spryfield and Linda Felix is on the hunt for cats. Her friend and colleague, Tracy Galusha, sits in her car, holding a line attached to a wood and wire catch trap with a dish of tuna. It’s a treat they hope will be tempting enough to lure a pregnant stray that’s been wandering the neighbourhood.
The women (AKA “The Cat Lady” and “Trapper Tracy”) are part of a wider network around Greater Halifax who rescue cats. Some of those cats are strays; others come from families who can’t afford to pay for the spaying or neutering fees. Felix usually helps those low-income families get their pet spayed or neutered, along with cats left behind by owners that move. Meanwhile, Galusha traps strays and brings them to a vet. The goal is to reduce the population of abandoned and stray cats. Population estimates in HRM range from 40,000 to 100,000 strays.
“Everyone laughs at that number, saying it’s wrong,” Felix says, “but once you get into the field, I don’t think it’s too far off. We need a cat shortage in this city. At the numbers right now, it will take a long time to achieve that.”
The pregnant cat is not found on this night. Felix and Galusha think she may have sought shelter from the cold weather. But many rescues, fortunately, turn out better than this one. Felix’s rescue attempts began in her West End Halifax backyard, helping strays that wandered onto her property. She quickly found out the problem was wider spread than she imagined.
When Felix first came to Greystone just over a year ago, she could count more cats than people on the street. The strays are easy to spot; they are underfed and their fur is dirty and matted. Still, many others are sick with diseases such as feline leukemia.
Felix helped start a Spay Day program in this community and, within the past year, has helped get more than 40 cats spayed or neutered. Many of those are fostered or eventually adopted. She works in other parts of Halifax, too, in conjunction with other rescue teams. Besides rescuing the cats, they also teach people about post-spay or neuter care and why it’s important to keep their pets inside.
Felix spends about 12 hours per week looking for cats. Together the rescuers raise funds and get vet clinics to help with the costs of spaying and neutering, but they also donate their own time and money. “A lot of people have told me I am the only person to help them in their life,” she says.
Felix considers Greystone a dumping ground where owners from around the city leave their unwanted cats. North End Dartmouth, where Felix also pitches in, has the same issue. While she believes owners leave their cats in these areas because they think residents, many on fixed or low incomes, won’t object, locals often end up caring for the animals.
Tina Norris is one Greystone resident who now works with Felix in identifying and helping stray cats in the area. She’s taken in several of the strays once they were spayed or neutered, and even before. “I wasn’t even a cat lover, but it breaks my heart to see them out there,” Norris says. Her current litter consists of four now-healthy felines Bella, Buddy, Girlfriend and No Ears who, as his names suggests, lost his ears.
“These are very lucky cats that got taken in,” says Felix. “There are a lot of cats that don’t make it. Cats are not disposable. They suffer in the outdoors. They cannot stand the Canadian winters. It’s just animal cruelty.”
Other residents who don’t take cats into their homes still do what they can. Outside a number of the units in Greystone are cat homes fashioned out of plastic storage tubs, complete with a door and lined with straw and Styrofoam. It’s in these homes where many of the strays spend their winters. Some residents also pay out of their own pockets to feed the cats, while others take part in fundraisers to help with the costs of spaying and neutering. The residents are cat rescuers by proxy.
“The residents who live here see these animals suffering every day,” she says. “All these people are trying to do what they can within their means.”
Felix has been one of several people lobbying Halifax Regional Council to get a cat bylaw on the books. But cat talk hasn’t always gone over well with HRM residents or council.
In October 2007, Council passed a bylaw that would have required owners to license their cats. The same bylaw would have also given animal control officers the power to trap and euthanize cats. A new shelter was also part of the deal. But months later, in February 2008, Council ditched the plan, citing cash as the reason. But embarrassment may have been the real motive. The issue made Council and the city a laughingstock and residents urged everyone to move onto more important issues.
Cats are now only referenced under the HRM By-law N-300 Respecting Nuisances, which encourages owners to keep the felines indoors and out of trouble. Those who don’t are subject to warnings, fines or a court date. Complaining neighbours can contact the offending cat’s owner directly or the HRM call centre.
Felix says previous attempts at a cat bylaw failed because the HRM failed to consult the public first. License fees collected were to go into general coffers, not a spay-neuter program. Felix says Calgary, for example, has an excellent program in which licensing fees go back to help take care of the cats and therefore controlling the population.
But while revisiting the cat issue may make many cringe, it’s one that cat rescuers and even some Councillors insist needs to be addressed appropriately.
District 9 Councillor Jim Smith, who supported the proposed cat bylaw back in 2007, supports the work Felix and the rescuers do. Felix says he’s the only councillor who regularly attends their fundraisers.
“I think we ought to support a spay-and-neuter program for feral cats as a start,” says Smith. “We have to give cats more value. Anyone who cares about animals should care about this. They wouldn’t do that with a dog and maybe one reason is because dogs are licensed.”
As for Felix, she will make sure cats are on the agenda with the upcoming election this October. “All the candidates in the election will be hearing from me,” she says. “This is not just a cat issue. It’s everyone’s issue.”