TORONTO, CANADA- Standing in the back of a building’s off-loading station in a Caledon industrial park, Lorena Rossi and Francesca Cicca de Marco blow kisses to two cats sitting warily on the other side of a fence.
Teddy and Cheddar are just half of one of the feral cat colonies Rossi takes care of. It’s a way of managing the seemingly ever-growing and roaming outdoor cat populations. By setting up feeding stations and also small insulated shelters, the pair says, the territorial cats establish a colony.
They don’t reproduce, either. Rossi’s feral cat colonies in Caledon are part of “trap, neuter, return” (TNR) programs, which the City of Toronto has in the past, endorsed. Businesses in the industrial parks call Rossi to have cats that have found shelter in their yards spayed and neutered which makes their presence more manageable.
Since 2010, the city’s animal services department has turned to spaying and neutering the feral cats brought to its shelters by those who have registered a feral cat colony.
The Toronto Humane Society also supports TNR programs and has its own in the form of an outfit called Barn Cat Program, started in 2009. It connects unadoptable cats with farmers who would like barn cats to help manage the rodents on their property.
However, releasing cats into the wild is part of a debate fraught with controversy regarding the roaming cats’ effect on the wildlife and whether they all really belong outside.
“Birds and small mammals, generally speaking, the world over, are impacted by free roaming cats,” says Nathalie Karvonen, executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre.
Ideally, all pet cats should remain indoors, Karvonen explained, because of their propensity to hunt for sport.
“It’s a really hard, philosophical question to answer,” she added, acknowledging the feral cat population is very hard to manage because most are difficult to place in homes.
Rossi and Cicca de Marco believe the best way to control feral cat populations is through what is called “attrition.”
So do the humane society and Toronto Animal Services, which say their shelters are less full these days since their respective TNR programs.
“We know that keeping feral cats in the shelter for any period of time is really difficult for them. They’re more stressed; they’re more likely to get sick,” said Barbara Steinhoff, executive director of the THS.
The only other solution to the problem, according to Toronto Animal Services program manager Mary Lou Leiher, would be to euthanize those cats.
“We weren’t making a dent in the feral cat population. It wasn’t solving the problem at all,” she said. “Not only that, it wasn’t a humane solution for the cats.”
One group — some of whom are currently members of the Toronto Humane Society — has been waging a campaign against THS’s Barn Cat Program. It’s not so much the birds or mammals they’re worried about, it’s the cats.
The group has staged protests and a Change.org petition calling for Steinhoff and the Society’s CEO Jacques Messier to resign on account of the Barn Cat Program, which garnered 1,260 signatures.
Started after the Durham Humane Society’s management was handed over in 2014 to THS and a number of its cats were transferred to other colonies, the group alleges cats that didn’t have the capacity to live somehow outside got into that mix.
“There’s no oversight, there’s no transparency and there’s no accountability,” Roxanne St. Germain said in Dianne Fil’s living room, with two other supporters of this cause, over tea and crudités.
Both claim that cats left outdoors fall prey to native predators like coyotes, cars, bad weather and infections. “Cats are just as important as other animals in the province, and they shouldn’t be dumped (outside),” Fil added.
In response to complaints just last year, THS implemented policies surrounding its program. They include a formal checklist — questions to determine whether or not a cat is fit for a barn setting, and questions about the barn itself. Before the cats taken in can be put back on the prowl, they are to remain in an enclosed space in the barn for a couple weeks until they “get used to the environment,” Steinhoff said.
She also added that most of those were already followed, but the society decided to “put something formal in place so there’s no question about what we’re doing.”
Kate Martin and Fred Hayes of Martinwoods Farm, a horse farm in Caledon, estimates they’ve taken in just about 20 stray cats from various animal associations, most of which hide out in a storage barn.
“Livestock and cats get along phenomenally,” Hayes said inside one of his horse barns, as Enrique, a large beige cat, hopped from stall to stall, snuggling up to the horses. “We stock a lot of feed in these barns — the cats, without them, the mice would be eating the bags open, and it would just be a nightmare here.”
Back at the industrial park, both Rossi and Cicca de Marco point to Teddy and Cheddar’s size and apparent health.
When asked just what makes humans so passionate about animals — birds, small mammals or cats — Rossi’s answer is simple. “It’s our need to nurture.”