For the past 10 years, Vanessa Anastasopoulos has been committed to helping the growing population of feral cats in Montreal get through the city's brutal winters.
"They often cannot survive outdoors on their own. They get frostbite, they get ill, so keeping them warm in the winter is a humane thing to do," she said.
Every year, Anastasopoulos — who has four cats of her own — rounds up 30 to 40 people across the island to help assemble dozens of winter shelters made from white Styrofoam boxes.
The boxes, which are donated by local hospitals, are lined with Mylar for insulation and fitted with a small cut-out door covered by a flap. This allows the strays to seek refuge from winter elements, such as ice, rain and snow.
The team of volunteers builds about 80 shelters a year that are then distributed to residents to be placed on their private properties across the city.
The shelter initiative is part of the Montreal SPCA's sterilization project — Trap, Neuter, Release and Maintain (TNRM) — which relies heavily on volunteers to help trap strays and then look after them after they are sterilized.
The project aims to curb the city's overpopulation of cats — which animal welfare advocates say has been growing exponentially over the past few years.
"It's not good for the species because you end up with a bunch of animals suffering outdoors," said Anastasopoulos.
Limiting feral felines
According to Montreal's SPCA, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many strays are wandering around the city, as there has never been any actual data collected on them.
However, in a statement, the SPCA said there are an estimated 5.4 to 9.6 million free-roaming cats in Canada, with 1.5 to 4.1 million of these being feral or unowned. (Free-roaming refers to all cats that are not confined indoors, including pet cats that are allowed outdoors and previously owned cats that have been abandoned.)
"It's a known fact that cats reproduce at a rapid rate. If left unspayed, a female cat can give birth to up to three to five kittens, twice a year," the statement reads.
Since the TNRM project began, nearly 7,000 street cats have been sterilized, which means thousands fewer homeless kittens in urban areas, the SPCA says.
Anastasopoulos says she has personally trapped around 300 cats and has seen certain cat communities maintain low numbers years later.
She says that's because neutered outdoor cats will keep non-sterilized cats from joining their colonies and procreating.
"So when you have enough sterilized cats out there in the colonies, you're humanely reducing the overpopulation of feral cats," she said.
Anastasopoulos says her goal is to get to a point where there are "no longer cats living outdoors, born outdoors and dying outdoors but where every cat has a home and is wanted in that home."
But advocates say that will take more support from the municipal government.
Plea for government help
Phillipa Bell, another volunteer with the TNRM initiative, is calling on the city of Montreal to do more, starting with ensuring that post-op recovery is included in the program.
She says once the cats are sterilized, she feels obliged to take them in for two to five days, depending on how they're recovering.
"Otherwise, the cats are getting released into the alley and sometimes they're still groggy from the anesthetic drugs and we have no way of knowing how they are," she said.
She says Montreal should follow in Toronto's footsteps, where post-op recovery is offered by the city through its TNRM program.
In a statement, the city said it's granted 18 out of its 19 boroughs a service contract to implement the TNRM program on its territory.
"We ensure that agreements are in place to implement the program, issue a permit to citizens who wish to participate and provide inspection in situations where an associated nuisance is reported," the statement reads.
It also said it established a committee in 2021, composed of borough inspectors, SPCA workers and volunteer trappers, who are taking various actions "to improve and harmonize TNRM program practices in Montreal."
But Sarah Gauthier-Kirouac, co-founder and president of the Organization for the Protection of Cats, another local advocacy group, says that's not enough.
"We need money … we need medical assistance, we need a lot of things," she said. "So it's the time to act and I think the government must listen [to] what we have to say about this situation."
She says the feral cat problem isn't limited to Montreal and failure to act now could prove costly for Quebec as a whole.
"We need the reform in animal management. We are ready for that, the people [are] asking for that."