In the bushes behind the gravel parking lot of a Mississauga motel, a lightly worn footpath near Etobicoke Creek leads to one of the city’s many unseen feral cat colonies.
Bowls of water and food are scattered around the site, but around midday, its estimated 10 to 12 feline residents are nowhere to be seen.
“There’s a whole subculture of people that attend to the issue. We create colonies of cats, we feed them and make sure they’re healthy,” said volunteer Nikki Hayes at the entrance of the colony.
The people who operate the cat communities say they spend up to 30 hours per week and upwards of $10,000 per year caring for animals that would otherwise struggle to survive.
In addition to food and shelter, volunteers monitor colony populations and pay out-of-pocket to have the cats spayed and neutered.
“We created the issue,” Hayes added. “They’re dying if we don’t take care of them.”
She and a fellow volunteer say they recently spent $1,200 on a feral cat’s dental care.
While volunteers have maintained local colonies for decades, they’re now calling for more help from the City of Mississauga and its animal services department, which Hayes has criticized for a “lack of effectiveness.”
Volunteers allege that the city has failed to address the local feral cat population, which one critic described as a growing and potentially dangerous issue.
“It’s becoming an epidemic and it’s affecting a lot of people in their own backyards,” said Sandra Kyrzakos.
“There needs to be greater intervention, greater understanding about what is going on.”
Volunteer cat caretakers estimate Mississauga is home to as many as 80,000 feral cats, though the city’s animal services department says empirical studies in similar urban areas suggest the number is likely closer to 4,000.
Trap, neuter, release
In response to the community’s concerns, the city formed a new working committee in July with the goal of humanely reducing the city’s feral cat population.
City Coun. Pat Saito is leading the group, which will hold its second meeting on Wednesday.
“Our staff are looking at a whole new way of doing this, and they are going to be bringing an additional report forward that would show some additional funding,” she said.
An exact dollar figure has not been determined, though Saito said it could be in the range of $5,000 to $20,000.
Saito said the city will also try to have veterinarians provide free spaying and neutering for the animals.
Further details about the strategy are still undetermined, though the animal services department says the plan will include financial support for the volunteer rescue groups that have been maintaining the colonies.
“We recognize the support that we’re getting from rescue organizations throughout the city and it is certainly substantial,” said Jay Smith, Mississauga’s manager of animal services.
The approach will also be based on the “trap, neuter, release” strategy, which is designed to prevent feral cats from breeding in the wild.
“The efforts that are put into this effort today will result in smaller populations, hopefully, three, four, seven, 10 years from now,” Smith added.
It’s expected to take around a year-and-a-half before a final staff report and feral cat strategy is determined, though Saito said she will try to secure some money before that time.
“We can’t wait until it becomes a very serious issue,” she said. “And we need to deal with it humanely.”