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Miscellany 2



The Cats of
Parliament Hill

Ottawa, Canada

Fluffy, 'King of the Hill', Parliament Hill, Ottawa

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Cats were around on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada for a long time, maybe going even as far back as Victorian times when military buildings at the time gave it its former name of Barracks Hill. Certainly there were cats to keep the later Parliament buildings free of rodents until 1955, when it was decided to use professional services with traps, sprays and chemicals instead. That didn't mean the felines disappeared, though; they continued to be fed in various locations around the site by groundskeepers and maintenance employees. But it seemed their long-term future was uncertain.

A formal colony begins

Rene Chartrand That all changed during the 1970s when a local resident, Irène Desormeaux, decided to do something about the strays, arranging for their regular feeding and starting the more established colony that existed for around 40 years. She also had some simple shelters built for them for protection against the worst of Canadian weather. When Irène died in 1987 her role was taken over by volunteer René Chartrand (left), a pensioner and retired house painter, who loyally fed the cats for many years, using donations and his own money when necessary. No funds were received from the government.


Sanctuary for the cats of Parliament Hill, high above the Ottawa River The Parliament Hill cat condos, with Brownie and others hanging out Max, Brownie, Blackie and Fluffy, four of the cats on the Hill, Ottawa Spot, Fluffy and Max Titbits! Socialising in the sun Quick snack at the Parliament Hill colony

In late 1997 Chartrand and a friend built splendid and more permanent shelters for the cats. These each had four cubbyholes or 'condos' for them to come and go, multiple floors, a boardwalk in front and a veranda. The roofs, a favourite sunning spot in good weather, were modelled in the same French-influenced style as the main Parliament buildings opposite. For his tireless work with and devotion to the cats over a long period, René was presented with the Humane Society of Canada's Heroes for Animals award. By 2003, when he was well into his 80s, a team of regular volunteers was formed to continue his work and ensure that the cats would always be cared for. There were usually 8 or 10 volunteers.

The Parliament cats more recently

René retired, but the residents continued to come and go as they pleased in their own domain and became something of a tourist attraction; they were generally friendly. The colony was maintained at around 10 or 12 animals, and all were spayed or neutered. They received free inoculations and veterinary care from the nearby Alta Vista Animal Hospital. Donations from tourists and others paid for their upkeep, although the Purina pet-food company also made donations of food. What was provided for the cats also benefited numerous raccoons, squirrels, groundhogs and pigeons, which took advantage of the handouts!

Brownie Bugsy, 2008 Lillian-Wentworth, 2008 Snowball, Lillian-Wentworth and Bebe Fluffy and Blackie, 2007 Blackie, Bebe and Brownie, 2008 Brownie, Max and Fluffy, 2008

All the felines on the Hill were named and known to the volunteers, who between them visited, fed and spent time with the cats several times a day, even through the severest weather. Generally new animals were taken on only when a current resident died or, as sometimes happened, inexplicably disappeared, leaving a vacancy. There was no guarantee that the established cats would accept a newcomer into the colony, or vice versa. In cases where a problem arose the newcomer may have been adopted by a volunteer, or else taken to the Humane Society for rehoming.

A list of most of the residents (and the volunteers) is at the The Cats of Parliament Hill Blog pages, the work of Klaus J Gerken, a volunteer since 2003. There are also comprehensive entries and many photos dating from 2005 until late 2011, when a Facebook page was begun — updates and photos were then posted there instead, with only limited additions thereafter to the blog. We acknowledge Klaus and his fellow volunteers as the source of photos on this page.


Early morning welcome, 2007 Where's the food? 2009 Feeding time Tucking in Mama, Brownie and Bebe, 2006 Laura with her hands full, 2007 Brownie intently watches Sally feeding pigeons, 2007

Early morning
welcome

So where's
the food?

At last . . .

Yours is better
than mine

The caregivers' laps can
become very crowded!

Other residents are
always interesting



Sanctuary volunteers on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, spring 2010

The team of volunteers on the Hill in the spring of 2010
Front row (left to right): Klaus, Suzanne, Lia, Brian, Sally
Back row (left to right): Cheryl, Leyla, Lara, Abigail, Daniel
(our thanks to Brian Caines and Klaus Gerken)

2013: end of an era

The spaying and neutering programme in place over some years at the sanctuary, adoption of some of the feline residents by volunteer caregivers, and the policy of taking new arrivals at the Hill to the local humane society for care and subsequent homing, led to the population of the colony gradually reducing, and by the end of 2012 only four cats remained. The caregivers themselves made the difficult decision to close the sanctuary for several reasons: the age of these cats, their deteriorating health, and concern that they shouldn't be exposed any longer to the often harsh Ottawa winters. These last four would also be adopted by the volunteers.

Three were captured, leaving tabby-and-white Bugsy as the sole resident — he'd been on the Hill for about five years and Brian Caines was taking him in, but Bugsy managed to evade attempts to catch him for another day or two. But he was caught, and the sanctuary officially closed on 4 January 2013. The site was handed back to the federal authorities, and almost straight away the department for public works arranged its total clearance. As they had become so well known, and the sanctuary had attracted so many visitors and tourists over the years, there had been many calls for the distinctive 'cat condo' structures to be preserved, or perhaps moved and put to good use elsewhere, but in fact, despite being maintained as well as possible by the volunteers, they had been slowly rotting for years and were in poor shape by the time of the closure.

The last four cats, Bugsy included, all settled into their new homes and are reported to be well and happy. The Facebook page carries on with several thousand followers: caregivers post news and pictures of their adopted charges from time to time, while Klaus continues to regularly add many more wonderful images of the sanctuary's past residents from a huge personal collection taken over the years while he was a volunteer carer. René Chartrand, the devoted 'catman' until he stepped away from the task in late 2008, is now, we believe, in his 90s and living in a care home. On the railings in front of the former sanctuary is a sign in English and French briefly noting what used to be there, and including contact details for the humane society if any 'new' strays or abandoned cats turn up on the Hill, although instances of this over recent years had become rare.

Reflections

It was indeed the end of an era. Many were dismayed and upset over the decision to close the sanctuary; some even mistakenly believed the government authorities were responsible and blamed them for it. It had become so well known via press and the internet, even to the extent of being included in Ottawa tourist guides, that many visitors to the city will probably continue to make their way to the Hill, at least for a while, expecting to see the cats and be disappointed. The volunteers, however, pointed out that their decision was not made lightly, and they do feel it was in the best interests of the last few cats remaining to remove them to safer, warmer and more comfortable surroundings to see out the rest of their days.

Looking at it from a slightly different perspective, the closure was the outcome of a success story. Adoptions, coupled with spaying and neutering, steadily reduced occupancy to a point where the sanctuary was no longer needed on the Hill, and although it was understandably very sad to see it go, that is surely a worthy achievement and a good thing.

Irène Desormeaux, René Chartrand and all the dedicated volunteers who followed them cared deeply about the welfare of the cats on the Hill, and through nearly four decades willingly gave their time each and every day, through all weathers, to ensure they were always fed, sheltered and healthy. The hundreds of images of the cats which can now be seen at Facebook are testament to how well they accomplished this aim.

We don't think The Cats of Parliament Hill, nor the cast of characters involved so closely with them, will be forgotten any time soon.

Links and further reading

  • Jan 2000, UK Daily Telegraph: Ottawa: Canada's Catman about René and his care of the sanctuary cats.
  • 2007, YouTube clip: Cats with René.
  • Sep 2008, Metro News: The Cat Man of Parliament Hill.
  • Dec 2008, YouTube clip: The Cat Sanctuary On Parliament Hill.
  • Apr 2012, YouTube clip: The Cats of Parliament Hill - volunteer Brian Caines talks about the sanctuary.
  • Dec 2012, CTV News: Ranks continue to dwindle for decades-old cat sanctuary on Parliament Hill.
  • Jan 2013, CBC News: Parliament Hill cat sanctuary shutting down for good with video clip.
  • Jan 2013, CTV News: Cats on the Hill heading to new homes - has video clip with footage of Bugsy and interviews with carers. Another slightly different CTV clip is here. Both include brief older footage of René with the cats at different times.
  • Jan 2013, National Post: Parliament Hill's cat sanctuary 'disbands' after more than fifty years with an excellent photo of René with Fluffy, who was dubbed 'King of the Hill'.
    In the words of one carer in a Facebook post, Fluffy was a 'popular and sociable male feline resident of the Parliament Hill Cat Sanctuary [who] has been photographed literally thousands of times by visitors, volunteer caregivers and professional photographers as well as being filmed on video by fans and television crews. He was featured in Discover the Hill brochures, newspapers, magazines, on the internet ...'. On retirement from the Hill Fluffy was adopted by a friend of the sanctuary, and was still doing well in mid-2013.
    Sadly, however, Brownie — another long-time resident who'd been adopted by one of the carers, and probably the best-known character apart from Fluffy — died in July 2013.
  • May-Jun 2013: Ottawa artist Gwendolyn Best painted a series of works to celebrate and remember the Cats of Parliament Hill, these being shown at an exhibition entitled Tired Paws and Weary Wings in May-June 2013: many images can be seen at her site and see also the Orange Art Gallery for a slideshow.
  • Coal, one of the former sanctuary residents, now has his own Facebook page.
  • Book: The Other Side of the Hill (2012) by Don Nixon, available at Lulu.com.
    Covers the history and many aspects of life on the Hill, and includes a chapter devoted to the Cats of Parliament Hill (described at Klaus's blog as 'the most in-depth and researched information on the cat sanctuary available'), and a photo of Fluffy adorns the front cover. The author is a retired government engineer who lives close by and for nearly 30 years managed Parliament Hill building projects for the department of public works and government services, then volunteered to be a tour guide for several years.

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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.


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