Harding Blvd. just hasn’t been the same since the neighbours from hell moved in.
“The devastation and damage they’ve caused is incredible,” says longtime resident Jane Flanders, 55. “I have to clean out half a recycling bag full of feces from my front lawn all the time. … They’re killing all the songbirds in my backyard.”
Of course, feral cats aren’t known for being especially cordial. About 13 of them occupy the quaint boulevard near Kingston and Birchmount Rds. They use backyards as living rooms and front porches as urinals. The group is one of over 300 registered cat colonies in the city, some of which happen to dwell on residential streets.
“Trap-neuter-return” (TNR), the city’s de facto policy for dealing with cat overpopulation in recent years, officially becomes part of the animal bylaw Thursday. Whereas a 311 complaint used to get homeless tabbies “locked up in shelters,” says Animal Services vet Esther Attard, “now the policy is we’ll trap them, sterilize them and return them back to their location of origin” — even if that’s right beside your house.
That approach is experiencing a backlash. Wildlife conservationists say the outdoor colonies are destroying songbird populations; residents say they are destroying their lives.
“This award-winning, stupid policy that the City of Toronto now has, they’re forcing it upon us against our will,” says Flanders. “It stinks to high heaven here.”
At least 11 “problem neighbourhoods,” where locals oppose the feline settlements, have been identified by the Toronto Feral Cat TNR Coalition, a team of volunteer cat-rescue groups that carries out the city’s TNR strategy. At their worst, says the coalition’s Roxanne St. Germain, some residents have “poisoned cats and gotten very aggressive with caretakers.”
In March, coalition members ventured onto Harding Blvd. to deal with its colony. Neighbours wanted the cats out of there. Instead, volunteers TNR’ed the felines and found a resident willing to feed the non-reproducing returnees.
Susanna Sapienza, who feeds the ferals twice a day on her porch, is not winning any neighbourhood popularity contests.
“I’ve faced a tremendous amount of opposition,” she says. “But I know I’m right. I have the proper support to do it and I know in my heart I’m not going to let these animals suffer.”
Harding residents argue the coalition never consulted them before re-establishing a cat colony in their neighbourhood.
“A city-backed group should care about the ramifications in the neighbourhood,” says resident Anna Dewar, a policy analyst who worries about the constant cat feces in her backyard, where her daughter plays. “They didn’t even consult with us or entertain the opportunity of relocating the colony.”
But the coalition says moving such colonies elsewhere would be problematic.
“It’s not good for the welfare of those cats … to take them out of the community that they’re used to,” says Attard, who oversees the coalition. “They’re territorial; if you move them somewhere new it’s going to disrupt everything.”
Attard says the city’s feral cats, estimated at more than 100,000, can’t be adopted into households. Too wild to be domesticated, many ferals taken into shelters wind up being euthanized — a trend the coalition hopes to curb using TNR. Last year, Animal Services euthanized 3,517 cats, compared with 5,602 the year before. About 3,000 felines have been TNR’ed since the alliance formed in 2010. Over time, says Attard, the colonies — stripped of their ability to reproduce — will shrink.
But for now, neighbourhoods must learn to co-exist with their community cats. “You don’t have to like cats,” says Denise Harkins, president of Action Volunteers for Animals, part of the coalition. “But they are entitled to live just as much as human beings are.”
Still, Phil Drinnan argues birds are entitled to live just as much as cats are. The avid bird watcher, who lives a street over from Harding on Avalon Blvd., says ferals have been mauling the bluejays and orioles that used to swoop into his backyard.
“We had to take our bird feeder down,” he says.
Wildlife conservationists argue that TNR is a program that subsidizes colonies of predators. A recent study by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute found outdoor cats in the U.S. kill up to 3.7 billion birds and 20.7 billion small mammals a year. In Canada, over 100 million birds fall prey to felines each year, according to the 2012 State of Canada’s Birds report.
The Toronto Wildlife Centre gets inundated with calls about animals injured by outdoor cats, says education coordinator Erin Luther.
“They are the biggest threat to songbirds other than habitat loss,” she says.
Dr. Liana Zanette, a University of Western Ontario professor who studies wildlife populations, says it’s unfair the public has no say in whether TNR should become part of the city’s bylaw.
“Usually, if there’s an environmental problem, then there’s an environmental impact assessment and a public decision should be made about what to do,” she says.
Zanette argues TNR doesn’t work because people dump their unwanted cats into existing colonies. But municipalities often find it cheaper to rely on rescue groups to deal with the cat overpopulation crisis, she says.
St. Germain agrees that much of TNR’s appeal to the city comes from its cost-effectiveness.
“It’s mostly done by volunteers,” she says. So where’s your cost?”
It’s in the hordes of feathered creatures being massacred, says Zanette. She proposes an alternative solution for controlling the feral masses: “If people want to trap and neuter, that’s perfectly fine. But why not put the cats behind some fences?”