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Canadian Rodent Control Officers (RCOs)
Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Canadian Wendy Findley, a visitor to Purr 'n' Fur in 2006, mentioned that the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic (MMA), in Halifax, Nova Scotia, had two cats that performed mousing duties. We contacted the museum and received a reply from Richard MacMichael, Coordinator of Visitor Services, who confirmed that there were indeed two Rodent Control Officers, to give them their correct title, and kindly sent some details.
CSS Acadia is a retired hydrographic survey vessel which was moved in 1981 to the museum's wharves, where she is now on permanent display, and the ship provided a base for the cats. The story began with Nannie, a beautiful black female who was the first holder of the post shortly after the Museum opened in the early 1980s. She gave birth to a litter of kittens on board Acadia, which guaranteed her and the museum some great media publicity. However, Nannie later went missing during an Atlantic Bowl weekend (regional semi-finals of the Canadian University Association's football championships) in November 1984 and was never seen again. She loved prowling the waterfront, so maybe she was picked up and taken home by a student; anyway it's hoped that's what happened and that she didn't suffer some more sinister fate. 'We've made a complete search of the piers and even the Acadia lifeboats twice . . . she hides there sometimes when there are a lot of people around. This is the first time she's ever gone away from the ship,' said the museum curator at the time. Even her long-time 'beau' a scruffy tomcat called Seaman Stumpf was said to have been looking for her, but all to no avail, and what became of her remains a mystery.
Nannie was succeeded by a black-and-white cat resembling Sylvester of cartoon fame or some felt, said Richard, that with his snaggle tooth and purposeful swagger he could be the feline reincarnation of Elvis Presley! He came from the local animal shelter, and was all set to be named 'Lady Bilgewater' when someone noticed he was definitely male! He therefore became Bertram Q. Bilgewater or just plain Bert to all and sundry. Bert was a champion hunter of vermin and pigeons even the odd seagull and defended his patch vigorously against canine intruders, but enjoyed having a fuss made of him, too. He became quite a local celebrity, at one time the most photographed cat in Atlantic Canada, and he loved the regular snacks from visitors that his fame brought him.
Sad to relate, Bert was found on deck one morning having had some kind of seizure; his fight for life was followed day by day in the local newspaper, the Chronicle Herald, but he died a week or so later. A tribute was written to celebrate his years of service to the Museum and the pleasure he'd given to the people of Halifax. The photo shows him relaxing on the quayside on one of his occasional trips ashore.
The last two RCOs
Enter Clara, who in 1996 also came from the animal rescue centre, but seemed to be more interested in food than in hunting! She spent quite a lot of time at a café near the museum, where she was given many treats, but folk at the Visitor Information Centre fed her too. As a result, said Richard, 'She is now quite huge, but still attractive in a Marilyn Monroe/Diana Dors sort of way.' Her photos certainly showed her looking very glamorous.
Erik the Red, the most recent of the RCOs, arrived in the autumn of 1998. The young ginger cat, thin and dirty, had followed Steve Read, then the assistant shipkeeper, one night. Calls to local animal shelters gave no clues and no one claimed him, so as Erik seemed to have decided he liked the place, he stayed and was given a new collar and identity tag. Steve, who lived on board, took on responsibility for the new arrival, who soon started to earn his keep by dispatching the rodents that Clara had not been showing a great deal of interest in Erik deposited parts of one in Steve's shoe!
Almost as soon as he had arrived, Erik disappeared and it was thought he'd been cat-napped. The story had a happy ending, though. It turned out he'd been found, meowing, hungry and minus his collar, outside the Bank of Montreal building in downtown Halifax early on the morning after he had vanished. How he got there was a mystery, but it's thought someone probably picked him up and left him there, for whatever reason. He was found by a lady parking her car as she came into work; thinking he seemed lost or abandoned, she took him to her office in the Department of Justice, where he curled up on the photocopier and slept. 'He was just waiting,' she said. 'He seemed so desperate; I couldn't just leave him there.'
He went home with her at the end of the day and met her partner and their cat Stanley. It wasn't until some days later that a secretary at the Department of Justice heard about Erik's disappearance from the Museum and put two and two together. After a phone call in which Erik 'spoke' to Steve and had his meow recognised, the cat was reunited with his delighted owner some ten days after his adventure had begun. 'It's wonderful,' said Steve, 'like a family reunion'. Erik was a demon hunter with real attitude, and was often much too busy for photo opportunities!
Erik and Clara tolerated each other most of the time, except when he wanted to sit in her sunny spot, and bit her she retaliated by eating his food as well as her own. In 2007 Clara was reported to be 'bigger than ever'!
Early on the morning of 14 December 2007, arriving museum staff were greeted by the news that a member of the public had reported that a cat had been seen in the water in the harbour. Boatbuilder Eamonn Doorly rapidly launched a small boat, and with the aid of security officer Jason Muise managed to fish out the cat, which turned out to be Erik. As it was below freezing at the time, Erik had used up at least one of his nine lives. He seems to have been investigating some work on the waterfront when he slipped on the icy wharf and fell in. Once ashore he 'took off', and a search party found him recovering at the offices of the Daily News, where staff knew him well and were drying him off and comforting him.
By 2010 Clara was 19 or 20 years old and she officially retired ashore, as the gangway was starting to become quite hazardous for her. She was taken in by a good friend of the museum's ship keeper. Sadly, though, she did not enjoy a long retirement, as later in the year she began to decline rapidly with various age-related problems, and she died on 7 December 2010 with ship keeper Steve, her best friend, at her side.
Her former partner Erik assumed full command of CSS Acadia and became quite noticeably more mellow and affectionate after Clara's departure. He seemed to sense he was in sole command, and started to approach members of the public in a way he would never have done before. Staff in surrounding businesses still had to be politely asked not to feed him, but the number of late-night calls from inebriated 'good samaritans' who found him out and about on his meanderings declined sharply. The collar he wore, with its witty message, finally seemed to be doing the job for which it was designed!
Erik had arrived on the Halifax waterfront as a young stray in 1998, so by 2015 he was getting on in years and starting to feel his age, particularly during the freezing cold winters on board his base, the ship Acadia. Due to the cold he had already spent two winters ashore with a dear friend, returning to his ship and the waterfront for the summers. He was on twice-daily medication for hyper-thyroidism which had been diagnosed some seven years earlier, and in the spring of 2015 lost his left eye when a melanoma was found; Erik recovered remarkably quickly and adjusted well after the operation, but it was time for the old lad to officially relinquish his duties and permanently retire to the home comforts of north Halifax, to lead a quieter life.
The museum wanted to give him a good send-off, and so for one day only, on 20 September 2015, he returned to his old haunts for a splendid retirement party. A hotline was set up for people to leave their comments, and an event page at Facebook, with many photos, recorded the proceedings. On the day there was a huge turnout of guests and well-wishers; Richard MacMichael said: 'We were overwhelmed by the response and outpouring of love for the old boy and were amazed that he actually stayed put to absorb it all rather than retiring below decks as he usually would!'
End of an era
Early in August 2017 we received the sad news that Erik had passed away following a short illness. His carer, Steve, wrote that Erik had enjoyed a couple of years of retirement, and was healthy and vibrant until mid-July, when he started to become a bit unsteady on his paws, although he still went for his late-evening strolls with Steve. After a couple of weeks, though, he had lost interest in food and it became obvious that he was in decline; as Steve put it, 'The batteries were running down.' He was comfortable and loved until the end, which came quite quickly on 1st August. Erik's exact age was unknown, but he was probably between 20 and 22 years old, and had led 'a life well lived'. His very many friends and admirers in Halifax and around the world will mourn and miss him and it seems likely he will prove to be the last of the Rodent Control Officers at the museum, as there are no plans for a successor. CBC News reported that, as with his predecessors, Erik's ashes would be scattered at sea.
A comment posted to Facebook by one of Erik's many friends summed up the general sentiment: 'The red man set sail for Rainbow Bridge. God speed, my little friend. I hope you find a bottomless bag of Temptations.'
Links and further reading
With many thanks and acknowledgements to Richard MacMichael of the MMA, Halifax, NS.
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