A Day in the Life of a Cat Colony Caretaker

Caring for homeless cats is the best job in the world and the worst job in the world. And at Annex Cat Rescue – which daily provides food, shelter and medical oversight for 14 cat colonies citywide – it’s a testament to Toronto’s urgent need to address this awful but ultimately solvable problem once and for all.

No one really knows the exact number of homeless cats out there. In Toronto, estimates vary between 50,000 and a staggering 100,000 which many experts believe is a conservative guess even at the high end.

cats on the other side of the fence

What is known for sure is that these gentle creatures, which should be companion animals living indoors and away from traffic, wildlife, harsh weather and the constant threat of starvation, are many in number and among the most vulnerable in our midst.

Indeed, every day in every corner of the continent, an army of volunteers – some organized, some simply responding to strays that arrive in the backyard one day – set out bowls of water and plates of food in an effort to strike at least one peril from the daily list of dangers common to homeless cats.

I am one of those volunteers.

Like many people, I got involved with helping cats by accident. A story I had written about charities led me to Annex Cat Rescue (ACR), a completely volunteer organization dedicated to easing the plight of homeless cats through diligent, ongoing care and adoptions wherever possible. I was so impressed with the scope and effectiveness of the work they did that, after the piece ran, I volunteered to do some writing.

That put me in the email mix, which soon led to a plea for a new colony feeder in an area near where I practice yoga. So, I signed up… unsure of what I was taking on.

Feeding homeless cats in a colony is humbling, heart-breaking and rewarding in about equal measure. No one does it casually. It’s awful in winter and when it’s pouring rain. But as bad as it is for feeders trying to pry the lids off of cat food cans with frozen fingers, it’s worse for the felines venturing into snow up to their bellies for a once-daily meal before the raccoons descend.

At the colony near my yoga studio, four cats live in a backyard where special straw-filled shelters have been set up by a kindly home owner to keep them from freezing to death in winter. These shelters are also made by volunteers and distributed free or very cheaply to encourage tolerant property owners to use them.

feeding under a fence

Because the home owner doesn’t want us in the yard, we seven feeders – one for each day of the week – must kneel down and feed the cats through a hole in the fence. Wet and dry food is set out on cardboard plates (easier to clean up) and fresh water is added to empty yogurt containers trucked along for that purpose.

Without hesitation, two cats – Baby and Bandit – are first to the hole, popping their heads out to take pets and playfully swatting at our hands as we scoop out the food while their cagier comrades hang back.

It’s not known how these cats came to be living in this way; the back stories of all homeless cats are mysteries. Homeless cats that are comfortable with human touch are presumed to have once been owned but were lost or abandoned while feral cats – those born outside before volunteers could trap and spay/neuter their parents – will often never allow touch even after years of being fed by the same volunteers.

In addition to daily feeding, colony caretakers monitor for signs of physical illness and dental distress, with charities like ACR footing the vet bills when the cats are captured, which is much harder to do than it sounds. These are wary beings. Also smart, and not easily lured unless they are very hungry.

The outcomes of capture are sometimes happy and sometimes not. The above-mentioned colony used to have five cats but we caretakers noticed that Elmo had weepy and glued-shut eyes – a potential sign of upper respiratory infection which desperately needed veterinary care. An experienced volunteer trapper (miraculously) captured Elmo through the fence and took him to the vet.

Elmo

It’s unclear how much longer he would have lived outdoors. But Elmo, suffering from severe dehydration, feline AIDS (very common in ferals), anaemia and a horrific flea infestation in addition to the URI, went into cardiac arrest and died within days of being admitted to hospital.

When news of poor, gentle Elmo’s death spread among the caretakers, we wept. I am crying now as I type this. Like I said, no one does this work casually. It very often hurts.

We have successes, too. When our cats receive care in clinics, we sometimes discover they are receptive to handling and we’re able to transition them first into foster homes and then into forever homes. Of course, a shortage of foster and socialization homes is a constant problem.

Like I said, caring for homeless cats is the best and worst job in the world. And I speak for all cat rescue groups when I say we desperately want to be put out of business.

People must start regarding cats as they do dogs – like members of the family, not property that is surrendered to shelters or (ugh) just turned loose if behavioural problems emerge or they simply become inconvenient. And cats must, absolutely must, be spayed and neutered even if owners never intend their cats to go outside… because sometimes they get lost anyway.

We know, because we see them every day.

— Kim Hughes

(Photos: Top, group: Sara Slater; Bandit – Kim Hughes; Elmo – Sara Slater )

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