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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
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.
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!
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.
The team of volunteers on the Hill in the spring of 2010
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.
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.
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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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