The Cats of Parliament Hill

Until 1955, Canada’s most famous feral cat colony was located at the Cat Sanctuary of Parliament Hill, where cats were employed as natural exterminators of mice and rats. After that date, the cats continued to receive care until recent years, when the last four feral inhabitants were adopted. Being from Canada, I was interested in my birth nation’s Trap-Neuter-Release.

To my surprise and pride, a 2011 tourist booklet called Guide to the Hill includes as one of Parliament Hill’s prominent locations the aforementioned Cat Sanctuary. (Parliament Hill is the Canadian equivalent of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.) The guide describes the site in this way: “Through the kindness of volunteers and the generosity of public donations, this ‘cat sanctuary’ has cared for the animals of Parliament Hill since the 1970s. Today, it is home to cats, raccoons, groundhogs, squirrels, pigeons, chickadees and sparrows.”

When did the feral cats first appear on Parliament Hill? According to a blurb on North Country Public Radio, their ancestors arrived in the early 1900’s. The Cats of Parliament Hill Blog further expands the story by stating, “There is a story that Colonel By brought hundreds of cats with him when he built the Rideau Canal in 1826, to take care of the rodent population.” The blog recognizes that this tale can’t be confirmed, but then goes on to report that what can be confirmed is that cats on Parliament Hill were used as pest control until 1955 when they were replaced by chemicals.

From that point until 1970, ground keepers fed the cats in various locations. That’s when Irene Desormeaux took on the job of being a caretaker. In the 1980’s, she began receiving help from a gentleman named Rene Chartrand, who built wooden shelters for the cats. In 1987, Chartrand took over as the cats’ primary caretaker when Desormeaux passed away. He continued to loyally feed the cats until operations ceased in 2003.

When did Parliament Hill begin its TNR program? According to Wikipedia, neutering all the cats only occurred in the last ten to fifteen years of the sanctuary’s operation. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reports, “The sanctuary was once home to as many as 30 strays, but spaying and neutering has reduced their ranks to just four today.”

Why did the Cat Sanctuary close? The Cats of Parliament Hill Facebook offers this explanation as one of the reasons. “The lease expired when Rene Chartrand went into a retirement home in November 2008 and didn’t renew it. The caregivers kept it open until January 2013 until all the cats were adopted.” And there were another factor: renovations were about to be made in the location where the cats lived. Offers were made to relocate the colony, but suggested sites were deemed unsuitable by the caregivers because of the high volume of traffic.”

The bottom line is, that having reduced the colony to a population of just four cats that were then adopted, Cat Sanctuary’s TNR program can be considered an unqualified success.

Despite the numerous success stories, critics of TNR doubt its effectiveness. However, while certainly some TNR programs have failed, it seems clear that they can succeed when done right. The Cat Sanctuary on Parliament Hill is one such example.

There is a wealth of material online  about The Cat Sanctuary on Parliament Hill. There are news reports, an archived blog, one book, and even a current Facebook page. If the sanctuary is closed, why does it continue to receive so much publicity? One volunteer is quoted by CTV News as saying, “We’ll remember them and tell people about them. They won’t be forgotten.” Besides the fact that caretakers become attached to the feral cats that they feed and so would simply want to remember them the way all pet-owners would like to honor their own beloved pets, there’s an additional hope. It echoes the reason I share here at LAA Pet Talk:

We would love to find ways to bring attention to the need of shelter and awareness to cat colonies…. The Cats of Parliament Hill colony has opened our eyes, and it would be amazing to continue with that legacy.

–comment on Facebook, Cats of Parliament Hill

If you wish to support Trap Neuter Release right here in Lincoln, Nebraska, check out organizations that provide it. The Cat House and Husker Cats always needs volunteers, donations, and those willing to foster and/or adopt. Help them out today! To get involved on a more national level, check out the Community Cats Movement.

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