MONTREAL – Most evenings and weekends, you can find Nancy Leclerc crouched behind an apartment or some abandoned industrial building, trying to catch a cat.
Leclerc and three of her friends make up “Pussy Patrol,” a volunteer-run group that aims to help Montreal’s hundreds of thousands of stray and feral cats that often suffer slow and painful deaths on the streets.
But as populations rise and with kitten season around the corner, Leclerc says it will take more than a handful of dedicated volunteers to get a handle on the overpopulation problem.
“We want to help but we get burned out and exhausted when we’re working full-time jobs, taking care of our own animals, trying to trap at night, running back and forth to the SPCA,” she says in an interview.
“It becomes exhausting and we’re never going to put a dent in the problem if the city doesn’t get involved.”
Using a strategy called “trap, neuter, release, maintain,” or TNRM, Leclerc and her group, which relies on public donations, will catch the cats, have them sterilized, vaccinated and dewormed, foster and adopt out the tame ones and release the rest back onto the streets.
It’s a task that involves significant time, fundraising and, sometimes, heartache — but when enough people get involved, Leclerc says it can work.
On Saturday, she pointed out a colony that lives behind an apartment building in the Rosemont Petit-Patrie borough, where six well-fed cats popped in and out of a series of makeshift Styrofoam shelters covered by a tarp.
The cats, all females, were trapped and sterilized by her group last year after several years of having multiple kittens, many of which died or were taken and sold by local teens, she says.
While the cats are too shy to adopt, Leclerc’s group says their improved living situation benefits both their health and the neighbourhood, by reducing unwanted behaviours such as spraying, fighting and howling from male cats that come to breed.
Due to their elusive nature and quick reproductive cycle, it’s almost impossible to know how many stray cats are in the city.
The Montreal SPCA points to an American study that suggests the number of stray cats equals the number of domestic ones, which would put Canada’s number at about 9.3 million, based on 2017 cat ownership data from the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.
Montreal Coun. Craig Sauve, who oversees animal issues for the city, says he has heard estimates of between 250,000 and 500,000 cats in Montreal, although some say it’s as high as one million.
“What we’re hearing from groups is that this is an emergency,” he said in a recent phone interview.
The city recently held a series of public consultations as it looks to revamp it’s animal control bylaw after overturning the previous administration’s ban on pit bull-type dogs.
While much of the discussion has focused on dogs, Sauve says the city is also hearing the message from cat groups.
He says the upcoming bylaw will likely include mandatory sterilization for cats, and the city is also considering mobile vet clinics that could offer sterilization services on site.
He points out that many boroughs offer a TNRM program through the SPCA.
Anita Kapuscinska, a spokeswoman for the animal welfare organization, says the SPCA has occasionally had to deal with residents who tried to poison cats in an effort to get rid of them — a method she says is not only cruel, but ineffective.
“Cats are territorial, so if you take one out of an area, it’s guaranteed that more cats will move in,” she said in a phone interview.
Leclerc points out that while TNRM programs provide support and sterilization services, the actual trapping work is left entirely to a handful of volunteers.
She says she would like to see the city appoint one person in each borough who can help with trapping and work with citizens to make helping the cats into a community project.
While it may seem counterintuitive, Leclerc and Kapuscinska both say the best strategy for people who want to get rid of cats in their neighbourhood is to volunteer.
“People want them gone, but all of this takes work, time, patience and a little bit of compassion,” Leclerc says.
“The problem is there and it’s not going away.”