BY Hanna Fathi & Olivier Neven

On the morning of March 24, the strained meows of kittens were heard coming from a recycling bin in Lavaltrie. A tip was sent to the Heart in Hand Rescue, a non-profit, volunteer-run cat rescue founded in 2014. It didn’t take long for volunteers to arrive and pull out two white kittens, and their grey and white sibling.

The kittens, now named Billie, Selena and Jackson were checked, and found to have contracted feline herpes and conjunctivitis, but would receive care at a foster home.

“Someone could’ve easily thrown a heavy object inside and squished them,” explains Jessica Catablo, one of the organizers at Heart in Hand Rescue.

Learn more about the mission of Heart in Hand Rescue. Video by Olivier Neven.

Stories like this are common for members of the rescue. And as the weather warms up, it will only get worse. Catablo calls it “cat season.”

“Montreal is known for abandoning their animals, especially during moving season,” says Catablo. “It is very difficult to find places that accept animals.”

According to the Montreal SPCA, their regular intake of 600 pets a month expands to more than 1600 during moving season.

Daisy lying down

Daisy was formerly an abandoned cat who was taken to the SPCA. She was adopted by a family at around two months old. Photo by Cristina Sanza.

The city is attempting to reign in the number of strays with a free “Trap-Neuter-Release-Maintain” program through the SPCA. The cats are returned to their territory after being neutered and vaccinated. A clipped ear indicates the procedure has been done.

The SPCA Targeted Permanent Sterilization Clinic also offers a discounted sterilization fee for low-income owners, which is subsidized by the city.

Furthermore, as of January 1, 2020, a by-law makes it mandatory for pet owners to spay or neuter and microchip their pets. Owners who don’t comply face a fine of $400.

“It was like ‘Okay great, now they’re finally making it official’,” says Catablo of the new by-law. “We’ve always microchipped our animals since the beginning.”

Daisy posing on concrete

Daisy was sterilized and microchipped by the SPCA. Photo by Cristina Sanza.

However, many of the programs in place do not reach the more problematic pet users who aren’t likely to be registered with the city. Catablo says cats can be sold for much cheaper and with less oversight than a shelter on websites like Kijiji.

“The rescue will often offer to collect cats we see going for free on Kijiji. […] I tried to report an unspayed cat after I saw an ad on Kijiji after the law was passed. It was advertising that she was pregnant, and they wanted to sell the kittens,” says Catablo. “I’m not able to get their name, telephone, where they live, [to fill out the report]. What will the city be able to do for that?”

“The SPCA is doing an amazing job, but there is too much to do,” says Emma Lasgnier, owner of Kitten Saviours, a non-profit that helps put kittens in foster homes.

Lasgnier is eighteen years old and began running the non-profit out of her parent’s house in February of 2019 after her experience with a local cat colony. She pays for Kitten Saviours out of her own pocket. This includes vaccinations, food, litter and emergency veterinary visits. She relies on the SPCA’s TNRM and Mittens sterilization programs to help with her rescues.

Black and white kitten

Non-profits like Kitten Saviours aim to rescue kittens and bring them to safe homes. Photo courtesy.

“It’s easy to say [that] people who can’t afford a pet shouldn’t get one, but that’s not how that works,” explains Emma. “If you want a cat, you can go get a cat on Kijiji. There’s nothing stopping you.”

Quebec passed Bill 54 in 2015, stating that “animals are no longer ‘property,’ but sentient beings with biological needs.” However, little has been done since regarding the animal overpopulation crisis, according to Lasgnier and Catablo.

“Animals are a big issue in Quebec right now, especially cats. The Coalition Avenir Quebec doesn’t do anything about it,” says Lasgnier. “The SPCA must find ways to get extra funding all by themselves. They cannot take cats outside of Montreal; it’s just not possible. Over there [outside Montreal], there is no help for cats. Access to veterinary care, if you’re not in the city is difficult. I got my cat spayed in the Laurentides and it cost me $400 just for one cat,” she says.

“In Saint-Michel it’s bad,” says Catablo. “You can be walking down a street, and in the lanes you’ll see a cat. The SPCA’s free TNR program does not cover the Saint-Michel area, so definitely the places the SPCA does not cover they have the most cats.”

Areas offering a Trap-Neuter-Release service in and around the area of Montreal. Map by Hanna Fathi.

In sectors outside of the SPCA’s jurisdiction, cities may turn to private companies. In 2016 Laval entered a partnership with Berger-Blanc, a controversial, private pet shelter. The shelter was accused of abusing and improperly euthanizing animals in its care in 2011, following an investigation by the Society for the Protection of Animals in Canada and Radio-Canada. Lasgnier says she doesn’t understand how Berger Blanc could be accepted as a safe shelter.

“I feel helpless. Really helpless,” she says. “Even if we do as much as we can, we really only change the life of one animal at a time, but we need to be able to change way more. This situation is really crazy. There are too many cats. I spayed an entire colony next to my house, only to find out in my neighbor’s backyard that there are cats running around not spayed. One trapper cannot sterilize 80 cats all alone, we need support.”

“We don’t get donations a lot,” says Catablo. “If we run out of money, it’s our director paying out of pocket. “No company will sponsor a shelter; there’s no money in it. I think the government needs to support rescues. It’s everyday people like you and me, just doing our thing, trying to help, but there is not really a system. There’s just the SPCA, and that’s it.”

Stray cat being pet

Stray cats can be spotted all over Montreal boroughs, even in densely populated areas. Photo by Cristina Sanza.

She says shelters need help to get more doctors and to subsidize veterinary care.

“A regular visitation price for our shelter to the veterinarian is $100, and an emergency visit is $200. That’s even if they look at your cat for five minutes,” she says.

Other rescue groups have called repeatedly for cities to run their own shelters, away from private business interests. A good example would be the joint coalition between seven cities in the Richelieu Valley that led to the creation of the Services animaliers de la Vallée-du-Richelieu (SAVR) in 2014.

The TNRM program led by the SPCA has successfully sterilized 7,000 cats. But the problem is huge. According to the SPCA, a single female cat can give birth to three litters of at least four kittens every year. After four years, over 20,000 cats may descend from that one mother.

Main photo by Cristina Sanza.
Published JUNE 24, 2020.