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Leaside’s gone to the (feral) cats

feral_cats_webI like to run in Leaside. And not just the pretty residential streets with their lush gardens and Little Free Libraries, but the industrial areas that remind us of Leaside’s original origins as more of a hard scrabble railway neighbourhood.

One day as I was heading past Brentcliffe toward Leslie, far past the retail strips and into the land of chain link fences and rubbly parking lots, something caught my eye. Or, rather, someone. It was a large grey and white cat slinking into a well-constructed little house tucked behind the chain link fences.

Later, I would learn from cat rescuers and carers Michelle and Liz that this was Rooster, one of the many feral feline habitués living in this long-standing Leaside cat colony. No one is quite sure how old the colony is, but it’s at least 15 years, when Michelle first came on board as a feeder, trapper and caretaker.

Liz joined the care team six years ago at a time when the colony was teeming with tabbies. “Liz came in, and holy smokes, you wouldn’t believe what she and her friends did,” says Michelle. Liz and the team helped to set up cat motels, coordinate feeding and care schedules, organize TNR (trap, neuter, release) to control the cat population, and generally give these decidedly outdoor cats the love and care they need to lead healthy lives more or less in the wild.

“When Liz joined there were probably 50 cats,” says Michelle. Need now we are down to nine or 10. In that industrial area, I used to tend four colonies. The three that were closer together are now down to one.”

The colony, though situated in the middle of an industrial area, seems very private and unusually quiet. It’s also clean. The cats come and go in and out of the tidy purpose-built cat motels, and fresh food and water are always on tap for them.

“I’m a big fan of putting up signs to let people know the cats are being looked after,” says Liz. “People are constantly dropping off food for them, but we encourage them (through signs) not to feed the cats. They’re innocent creatures. We need to protect them.”

Liz had been working on Vanderhoof when a co-worker told her he had spied a bunch of cats and kittens. That was her introduction to a world she knew little about. But it didn’t take long for her to become something of a feral cat colony expert. Through the Toronto Feral Cat Coalition (http://torontoferalcatcoalition.ca/) she learned all about how to manage a colony, how to trap feral cats, and how to work with the Toronto Humane Society to get the cats vaccinated and microchipped before returning them to the colony.

The carers don’t like to broadcast its location because less thoughtful people dump their unwanted kittens or cats and upset the balance of the colony, where the “regulars” have learned to live together. Some of the original ferals had to leave because they were too old to handle another winter outdoors. In fact, Cleo, one of the more senior felines – now 23 years old (108 in human terms!) – lives with Michelle and is quite happy to be off the street.

Liz and Michelle are able to keep an eye on the colony even when they’re not there. “We have infrared cameras set up. We want to see if we have rogue feeders and what time the cats are feeding,” says Liz. “The colony definitely attracts other wildlife. Two or three years ago, we had a coyote in the parking lot coming up for food. We have skunks, possums, raccoons all competing with the cats for the food. We even have photos of the raccoons and cats eating together.” Toronto is, after all, Raccoon Nation.

If Liz and Michelle have one message to share, it’s that feral cat colonies, if they’re well managed, are not a problem. But both caution against dumping cats in a colony if you can no longer manage them. “People are always better to go to the Humane Society or Toronto Animal Services if they can’t manage their cats,” says Michelle. “It’s not the cats who are the problem, it’s the people!”


Want to help out?

The colony can always use food donations and more backup feeders.

Call Liz or Michelle at 416-877-5641 or 416-696-9813.