Apocalypse Meow: Inside Cornwall’s cat crisis

The eastern Ontario city is home to hundreds of feral felines —and residents are divided over what to do with them
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on April 4, 2019
a cat peeking out of a building
The OSPCA took in 413 stray cats in Cornwall in 2018, down from a high of 1,032 in 2014. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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CORNWALL — When Mary Jane Proulx ran for city council last year, she had a simple message for Cornwall voters: “Help the feral cats.” And while it wasn’t a winning strategy, Proulx managed to receive 1,532 votes — much to her surprise.

“I spent $240 on my campaign. I had one ad in the newspaper. I was expecting 500 votes, maybe,” says Proulx. “My whole purpose was to get people talking about the cats.”

Cornwall, human population 47,000, has been dealing with problems related to roaming cats (tame cats whose owners let them roam or who have been lost or abandoned by their owner) and feral (“wild-born”) cats since at least 2007. They flared up in the last five years, reaching what some called “crisis” levels in 2017. That year, 764 stray cats were taken in by the local OSPCA — nearly 30 per cent of the total for the entire province. (That same year, the OSPCA in Markham, a city with seven times the population of Cornwall, took in 217 stray cats.)

In July 2017, Cornwall’s problem made national headlines when 73 cats were surrendered on a “cat amnesty day,” meaning that the animals could be brought into the local SPCA and surrendered without fee or fine. The felines overwhelmed the local facility and had to be dispersed to other Ontario SPCA locations.

The unwanted notoriety pushed the city to come up with what its chief building official, Chris Rogers, refers to as “outside the box” strategies to counter the cat-crowding. 

One of the contributing factors, he determined, was a lack of accountability. Cats in Cornwall (and elsewhere in North America and Europe), he notes, are too often seen as “disposable,” an attitude that forces municipalities and animal shelters to step up. Some residents, such as Proulx, care for them, leaving food in known cat hotspots like Bergin Avenue. Others, though, see it differently. “I’ve seen people fighting with each other because one of them is feeding the cats and the other doesn’t want them around,” says Proulx. “Some people say, ‘Don’t feed them.’ But, no, I want people to feed them, because I want them to be healthy.”

A proposed bylaw would attempt to deter such behaviour by making residents responsible for the cats they feed — essentially, a policy of “you feed it, you bought it.” Rogers has been tasked with implementing the city’s strategy. “If you’re feeding cats, you can do one of three things: you can set yourself up as foster care and we can license you; you can take it in and make it your own; or you can surrender it to the OSPCA.”

Mellissa Alepins, who runs Tiny but Mighty Kitten Rescue, worries that this approach could end up harming the cats. “We’re not in favour of that. People will just ditch them and stop feeding them,” she says. “You’ll even get people poisoning them. You will.”

Not everyone in Cornwall is as concerned about the cats’ well-being. After an incident last May in which an elderly man was attacked by a cat in the Riverdale neighbourhood, another resident called for strays to be euthanized.

Rogers believes the answer lies in clear communication: “The way to change thinking is through public education” — about, for example, the importance of licensing animals and of spaying or neutering pets — “and to make pet owners responsible for their pets.” 

Growing awareness of the issue may be making a difference: the OSPCA took in 413 stray cats in 2018, down from a high of 1,032 in 2014.

But most animal advocates in Cornwall and beyond agree that the most effective way to curb cat overpopulation is through a trap, neuter, and release program.

“We absolutely need a TNR program for these feral cats, because they’re not capable of being socialized and adopted out,” says Alepins. “The goal is to make sure that they’re at least spayed and neutered, so they aren’t outside creating more unwanted babies.”

TNR programs, though, come with a high cost. Alepins says that the cost of a single spay surgery can run as much $400 in Cornwall. (She takes the kittens she rescues to Quebec, where the surgery is cheaper.) The Ontario SPCA plans to send their mobile spay-and-neuter clinic back to Cornwall later this year to help take some pressure off of local rescues — but that’s only a temporary solution. Rogers says the city may consider subsidizing spaying and neutering, noting that such an initiative could be partially offset by licensing fees. (Calgary and St. John’s offer similar programs for low-income residents.)

On Adolphus Street, another part of town where the cat population has surged, one resident (who asked that her name be withheld, owing to cat-related disputes with her neighbours) has learned to embrace the felines — or at least tolerate them. At one point, she put her house on the market, but, she says, prospective buyers were turned off.

“Nobody wants a home where they’re seeing stray cats walking around,” she says.

Her home is no longer for sale, but she says she couldn’t stand to see the cats freeze in winter. So now she leaves a dish of food out and the door to her back porch propped open. There are four cats that stop by regularly. One of them is pregnant, which means there could be a population spike in her backyard in the next few months.

“If even just one cat has kittens,” she says, “it just explodes it again.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

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