While most Manitobans enjoy the warmer weather and relaxed pace that summer brings, humane societies and cat rescue organizations in Westman are struggling.
Linda Desjardins, founder of Cats TNR and Rescue in Neepawa, said the problem of stray and feral cats has only grown worse in the small town, located approximately 74 kilometres northeast of Brandon.
TNR stands for trap, neuter and return, a strategy that improves the lives of homeless cats and reduces their numbers. Cats are trapped, spayed or neutered so they can no longer reproduce, are vaccinated and then, if homes cannot be found for them, are released.
Cats TNR and Rescue was founded in 2012 after the discovery of a homeless cat population living at a nearby dump. Run strictly by volunteers but governed by a board of directors, it operates with foster homes and a small shelter. Foster families care for and socialize rescued cats while they receive veterinary care including shots, deworming and mandatory spay or neuter. The organization runs completely on donations and fundraising for their operating expenses, including veterinary bills, food and supplies.
In the last 50 years, Neepawa has nearly doubled its population, and is listed as one of the fastest-growing communities in Canada. As the population surges, Desjardins said, so does the homeless feline problem. The rescue currently has 100 cats in care, with many more up for adoption.
"The calls are continual. Every day we get messages from people asking us to take cats."
Often it’s not people discovering homeless cats, but those whose situations have changed and are looking to rehome their family pets. One woman phoned Desjardins a few days ago wanting to surrender her cat because she was moving to an apartment that didn’t allow animals.
"I said, ‘If you have an animal, why would you move to an apartment that doesn’t allow them?’ And she said there are no apartments that are pet-friendly."
Others, Desjardins said, don’t understand the type of care that cats need. They assume cats can be allowed to roam outside and that they can feed themselves by hunting mice and other rodents. Such animals can actually make cats quite sick, since they often carry worms and other diseases.
Then there are some cat owners who aren’t giving their cats a humane home. Recently, Desjardins had to rescue four kittens from a home where they were locked in a two-tiered cage with three adult and two teenage cats. A volunteer at Cats TNR and Rescue happened to be in the home doing some work and was appalled by the conditions the nine cats were living in.
"It’s just unreal," Desjardins said. "It’s cruelty."
Thankfully, the owner of the cats agreed to get the others fixed.
Sometimes, people can no longer care for their cats, but don’t even try to find someone to take them and just turn them out on the street.
"Neepawa is just full of stray cats now."
The problem has become so widespread that some local residents have even taken to leaving cat traps out in their yards.
"They think it’s quite fine to trap a cat, take it out into the country and drop it off, but that’s basically a death sentence for that cat … cats are dependent on people. That’s why they’re in towns and cities … they depend on people for their survival."
The issue isn’t limited to the town. Desjardins said that while some people who live in the country are beginning to spay and neuter their cats, not all do.
When Cats TNR and Rescue first began, Desjardins said the town was spending around $7,000 a year on euthanasia. Once the rescue got up and running, that amount decreased to $1,000.
But the problem, she added, just keeps coming back. Beyond full capacity, the organization is now only taking what Desjardins calls "emergency cases."
"We’re not alone. Every rescue, every shelter is just overrun, and I don’t know what the solution is anymore. It’s like we’re putting a Band-Aid on a cancer … we’re never going to adopt our way out of this problem, we’re never going to stop it."
The only way for things to get better, Desjardins said, is for people to spay and neuter their animals. When they don’t, they’re contributing to the problem.
"Yes, it’s expensive, but you can go out and buy an $800 iPhone, you can spend $200 on a meal or a night out, but you can’t spay or neuter your cats? That just makes no sense to me."
Tracy Munn, shelter manager and director at the Brandon Humane Society, said many cats are surrendered and become homeless because people value them less than dogs. She also cites the misconceptions people have about felines as contributing to the problem.
"People say, ‘Oh, I’m pregnant, I can’t keep the cat.’ I say, ‘Why can’t you keep the cat?’ Cats love children."
Munn credits the foster families that work with the humane society in being an integral part of saving homeless cats and dogs.
"The people that foster are phenomenal … we couldn’t have the amount of animals we do if it weren’t for the foster homes."
Summertime, however, is often a busy time, with some foster families going on vacation. It’s not strictly a cat problem, though. Munn said some months the shelter is full of homeless dogs, and other months with cats. In the end, it’s all about being a good pet owner and being prepared for the responsibility of owning an animal.
"Think long and hard before you get an animal. It’s kind of like a kid. Once you get it, then there’s no putting them back."
Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun