Toronto Life

Media: Toronto Life, July 2000

RITUALS: Wild Things

by Rondi Adamson

It’s a weeknight after dark, and the hubbub of rush hour traffic from Chinatown has diminished. In an alley behind the restaurants and dollar stores, the stench of rotting fish and produce competes with the smell rising from bowls of Whiskas. “Oh God, Julia looks pregnant again,” sighs Mike Milne, by night a volunteer for the Annex Cat Rescue, by day a data warehousing manager at Xerox Canada. Julia, or “the mother of all cats” (as Mike and his wife, Jill, have nicknamed the calico), seems to drop a litter every few months. She is one of a colony of about a dozen ferals — cats living wild in the city — that the Milnes are here to feed. Mike empties several large tins of wet food into plastic bowls, while Jill does likewise with kibble and water. Julia is waiting a few metres away with 10 others. Clint the colony’s alpha male, is patrolling the area on guard against possible threats to his brood.

Chow Time: feeding Toronto's homeless

Chow Time: feeding Toronto's homeless. Photograph by James Pattyn

The Milnes have been coming here twice a week for over a year now. Still, the cats are wary. Unlike their domestic kin, ferals don’t go in for a whole lot of cuddling. Most of them fear people (for good reason — one was found covered in cigarette burns) and won’t approach even the bearers of food. If you come across one that allows you to touch it, chances are it once had a home and is technically a stray. In the urban wild, starvation sometimes forces them to eat poisoned rats or mice and drink antifreeze — often with fatal results. And, of course, dodging cars day after day takes its toll. Julia and Clint will be lucky to survive more than five years in this harsh environment, a quarter of the life expectancy of a house cat.

On a typical night, the Milnes walk a two- to three-hour loop, carrying knapsacks filled with food. They’ll stop at about 20 points, laneways like the one off Spadina, strip malls and weedy abandoned lots. Other volunteers with the Annex Cat Rescue — founded in 1996 and a registered charity since last year — fan out across the Annex, Riverdale, parts of downtown and some Beach areas, feeding hundreds of cats each week.

Mike places the bowls behind a makeshift barrier of boxes and a piece of disenfranchised fence, set up to give the cats a chance to get a bellyful before some less than charitable human kicks it aside. That fewer people are around is one reason feeding is done after dark. Another is that cats are nocturnal — in the summer, volunteers make the trek after 10 p.m.

At the next stop, as the Milnes unpack their wares (large bags of kibble, 10 tins of wet food, several litres of water, bowls and forks), talk turns back to Julia. “We’ve got to trap her,” says Jill. Besides keeping the felines healthy, the Milnes and the other volunteers want to reduce the number of homeless cats in the city. When they eventually go to capture Julia, a tin of sardines will entice her into a cage with a rigged door. The ACR will pay to have her spayed, the procedure performed by sympathetic veterinarians who offer operations at cut rates. “It’s probably too late to abort Julia’s kittens,” Jill adds, “but they should he easy to adopt out.” Adults are more of a challenge. While not impossible to domesticate, they require patience, and time — lots of time. The Milnes themselves are the proud parents of Jasmine, whom they found last winter, pregnant and emaciated in an alley, and who is now a bona fide stay-at-home.

Stepping over an empty bottle, Mike shakes a kibble bag. A stream of cats — a long-haired tabby with a limp, a short-haired black one with frostbitten ears, another nicknamed “the French cat” because the ring of black fur on its head resembles a beret — pour out from under nearby parked cars. They stop a stone’s throw away. The meowing begins. “It’s coming, it’s coming,” says Jill, laughing. She notices Caesar, an orange and white male from another colony. “What’s he doing here?” she asks. Colonies, formed from blood ties, protect their turf like street gangs, so a tom in another male’s territory is unusual. The Milnes figure Caesar’s looking to get lucky. All the females in his colony have been spayed. Poor, frustrated Caesar still has his parts.

Tonight’s last stop is behind a butcher’s in Kensington Market (ferals often migrate to where the garbage is). The Milnes discover three kittens, so young their meows are almost inaudible, crawling atop a garbage heap. They scatter, and the mother — simply dubbed “Mama Cat” — watches anxiously as the food is dispensed. When Mike and Jill back away, the kittens re-emerge, scamper toward the bowls and dig into the meal as though it were their last.

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