"Cat ladies" of greater Vancouver still wary despite hard-won gains
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2012:
“Cat ladies” of greater Vancouver still wary despite hard-won gains
VANCOUVER, B.C.–“The worst thing anyone can call me is a cat lady,” Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association founder Karen Duncan once famously told longtime Global TV program host Dave Gerry. Then she laughed.
Cat rescuers throughout the greater Vancouver area now quote Duncan, with the laugh, expressing evident pride.
“I wasn’t a crazy cat lady,” says VOKRA volunteer Jemma Crossin in a video clip posted to the VOKRA web site, “but Karen turned me into one.”
Cat ladies and their male colleagues get some respect around Vancouver these days, reflective of achieving visible results. VOKRA volunteer Marie Soroski says she relatively seldom sees feral kittens these days, 23 years after VOKRA commenced work, handling 1,428 cats in 2009, the peak year. The feral cats whom Soroski and others continue to monitor in scattered quasi-wild urban habitat niches, such as overgrown railway cuts and junkyards, are now visibly fewer.
Fellow VOKRA volunteer Judith Webster deploys an arsenal of wildlife cameras and telemetry equipment to detect unseen cats. With the help of a male VOKRA volunteer, Webster has turned her house and yard into a maze of catwalks, cat tunnels, and trees screened in for safe cat-climbing.
Many of the surviving VOKRA cats who were caught and sterilized several years ago have become much fatter and friendlier. About 800 VOKRA cats and kittens per year are adopted, usually by feeders or neighbors of the cats’ habitats. Native predators, among them coyotes, hawks, owls, eagles, and even otters, have taken over much of the urban rodent-catching role that feral cats long filled.
Marmots & skunk
Wildlife aid was never anticipated as part of the VOKRA mission, but Soroski’s most memorable rescue may have been that of the East Van Marmot, in June 2010. Briefly a local celebrity, the marmot was believed to have reached Vancouver, far from his mountain home, as an accidental stowaway on a truck.
Another VOKRA volunteer rescued Bubbles the skunk in November 2011. Bubbles had eluded capture for two months despite having a piece of plastic debris stuck around her neck, apparently from investigating a discarded contained. Caught at last, Bubbles did not spray anyone, and received surgical treatment at the Wildlife Rescue Association BC which probably saved her life.
Duncan and friends have built VOKRA into a $400,000-a-year organization, with allies including a local horse rescue whose barns now house far more cats than horses, and offer accommodations including a mini-cat hospital. But though VOKRA is among the biggest neuter/return and feral cat rescue networks in North America, and the world, the greater Vancouver accomplishment is actually much bigger than VOKRA. Many other community and neighborhood cat charities have contributed, for example the Coast Animal Welfare & Education Society on Bowen Island, along with countless unaffiliated rescuers and feeders.
The Vancouver success–still a work in progress–is also bigger than feral cat issues. Starting with cat rescue, then expanding their efforts, self-described cat ladies have introduced and made a success of no-kill sheltering and even no-kill animal control in Vancouver suburbs such as Richmond, home of the Richmond Animal Protection Society, which operates both an 800-cat care-for-life shelter and the city animal control shelter, a few blocks away.
Along the way, the cat ladies’ example may have positively influenced the management philosophy of the British Columbia SPCA–though the BC/SPCA has not said so. A $27-million-a-year organization whose 37 shelters and clinics handle animal control for most of the province, the BC/SPCA serves more geography than any other hands-on humane society in North America. The BC/SPCA shelters received 33,762 animals in 2010, returning 5,169 to their homes and adopting out 18,144. Some individual shelters in major U.S. cities annually receive more animals. The North Shore Animal League, in Port Washington, New York, rehomes more. But the BC/SPCA handles more animals than all other shelters in British Columbia combined.
BC/SPCA executives have espoused no-kill sheltering as an attainable if elusive goal for more than 20 years. The BC/SPCA has encouraged neuter/return at least since 2004. But the relationships among the cat ladies and the BC/SPCA are complex, often conflicting, and have evolved for decades. Many cat ladies have bitter history with the BC/SPCA, or with past BC/SPCA management, or with management at some BC/SPCA facilities but not others.
Few mention–and by now few may remember–that the BC/SPCA also laid the groundwork for much of what RAPS, VOKRA, and the many smaller greater Vancouver rescue organizations have accomplished.
Founded in 1895 to seek passage of the British Columbia Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the BC/SPCA rapidly expanded to 11 chapters, advocating for animals and pursuing cruelty cases on a constabulary basis, but did not open an animal shelter until after taking the Vancouver pound contract in 1955. Without a shelter, the Vancouver chapter of the BC/SPCA had killed 4,880 impounded animals in 1949 from lack of anywhere to take them. Adding a shelter, and then rapidly adding four more, was expected to reduce the killing. Instead, the toll tripled in 15 years, reaching 15,586 in 1959, 25,758 in 1969, and 45,345 in 1974. Province-wide, BC/SPCA shelter killing topped 80,000.
“In 1976 we opened one low-cost spay/neuter clinic,” BC/SPCA Vancouver regional branch general manager Michael Weeks recalled in 1990. “Since then, with only two exceptions, our euthanasias have decreased year after year,” from 17,800 in 1980, to 13,391 in 1985, to 8,568 in 1989. Already the eight greater Vancouver shelters were approaching no-kill for dogs. The BC/SPCA demonstration of the efficacy of high-volume low-cost pet sterilization had an international influence, but the local response was not quite what Weeks and colleagues might have anticipated.
Feral cats were left behind
The ratio of cats to dogs killed had become more than 100-to-1. The first of the cat ladies wanted to know why more couldn’t be done to save cats. The BC/SPCA responded that the problem was stray cats, who had no one to bring them to the clinic for sterilization and no homes to go back to afterward.
The humane community as a whole, not just the BC/SPCA, had yet to recognize the distinction between self-sufficient feral cats and homeless former pets. Neuter/return, though practiced here and there, was nearly 20 years from becoming recognized as an effective population control technique. Like almost every other humane society, the BC/SPCA initially discouraged neuter/return, but Forgotten Felines founder Penny March recalled in 2006 that she began doing neuter/return as early as 1972. “Carol Reichert and I met over trapping cats,” March remembered in a posting to Animal Advoc-ates of British Columbia. “I was doing it the hard way, and she had started with the traps that we all currently use. Carol, myself, and a host of other people trapped for years. That is how we got the shelter in Richmond,” operated by the Richmond Animal Protection Society, in 1999.
“Al Brew,” owner of the Columbia Machine Works, “came outside to see what we were doing on his property every day,” March continued. “We told him what we were doing and that we had already trapped all the cats and had them fixed, but we had to put them back, as Carol had over 100 in her house and I had 50. He said, ‘You guys need a property where you can build a shelter’. He was very impressed because at that point we had 41 feeding stations, all in Richmond, except two on the other side of the local bridge.
“We of course agreed,” March continued, “and the next thing we knew he had found the property and contacted Carol to go and look at it. Hence the shelter was born. When we went to the city to get approval, they all sat there in council and asked us where were we going to find cats to put into the shelter. We then explained about what we did. Only one guy on the council, Harold Steves, knew about feral and homeless cats, as he was a farmer. The mayor and all other councillors did not have a clue.”
Reichart, a former flight attendant, initially ran the shelter under the name Richmond Homeless Cats.
Went opposite ways
By October 2000 March had formed Forgotten Felines and moved south, housing about 150 cats on rented premises in Delta. The BC/SPCA in October 2003 issued March the first of a five-year series of warnings for alleged neglect of cats. BC/SPCA senior animal protection officer Eileen Drever testified at a March 2009 hearing that investigators working under her direction had in September 2008 found three dead cats at Forgotten Felines and evacuated 51 cats, of whom five died within hours, ten were euthanized, and 36 were eventually adopted. Forgotten Felines was billed for more than $20,000 in veterinary and care costs.
The Forgotten Felines landlord reportedly started eviction proceedings in December 2008. The organization apparently no longer exists.
Reichart went the opposite direction. The RAPS 800-cat shelter, believed to be the largest cats-only care-for-life facility in North America, occupies the center of a six-acre tract still surrounded by suburban crop land. Fourteen small buildings house cats, about half of them under an arched screened canopy that keeps small birds from becoming vulnerable to cats and keeps small cats safe from raptors. Another five small buildings are used for storage and a workshop, where a full-time volunteer carpenter builds amenities such as cat sleeping shelves and wardrobe-like wheeled multi-story cat cages for cats who cannot be kept among the general population.
The cats, all originally ferals who for various reasons could not be returned to their habitat, are divided into several discreet colonies, with self-grouped sub-colonies among each of the largest. The biggest building is a ward just for cats who get frequent intervenous fluids, mostly for conditions of age. There is also a kitten ward, now used primarily for other cats who receive daily care; a ward for very old cats; and wards for cats who test positive for exposure to feline immune deficiency virus, and who test positive for feline leukemia.
Open to the public only on Sunday afternoons, the 800-cat shelter does few adoptions. At arrival, the cats were all presumed to be unadoptable, but many, after years of daily feeding and other exposure to humans, now compete for attention. The 800-cat shelter raises and spends more than $1 million a year for cat maintenance. About half the amount pays the large full-time staff. Augmenting the staff are approximately 120 volunteers.
RAPS in February 2007 outbid the BC/SPCA to win the Richmond animal control contract, “instituting a no-kill policy for animals regardless of age, medical needs, or adoptability,” recalled Martin ven den Hemel of the Richmond Review in February 2012. “While the City of Richmond’s contract covers operations and staff salaries,” van den Hemel wrote, “the shelter still does fundraising for the extras needed to assist animals, including rehabilitation and surgeries. Since RAPS took over, the shelter has handled more than 2,000 dogs, 1,800 cats, 300 rabbits, 50 farm animals, 350 small animals such as birds, reptiles and ferrets, and temporarily housed 1,500 injured wildlife. And the society helped convince the Richmond city council to ban the sale of rabbits and puppies from local pet stores.”
While Forgotten Felines, RAPS, VOKRA, and a constellation of smaller cat charities evolved in response to the perception that the BC/SPCA was inadequately responding to the needs of feral cats, Ingrid Pollak formed the Vancouver Humane Society in 1984 and Judy Stone founded Animal Advocates of B.C. in 1992 in the belief that the BC/SPCA had come to focus on doing animal control, at the expense of doing the advocacy and public education that was the BC/SPCA’s founding mission.
Headed since 1996 by Deb Probert, who joined in 1989 as a volunteer, the Vancouver Humane Society has focused on advocacy, with recent emphasis on animal agriculture and animal use in entertainment. The Vancouver Humane Society might be described as taking on most of the issues that the hands-on care organizations do not.
Animal Advocates of B.C. has been involved since inception in both neuter/return and dog rescue. In 1998 Animal Advocates initiated a high-profile campaign against keeping dogs chained, seeking passage of anti-chaining bylaws in greater Vancouver suburbs and pressing the BC/SPCA to make more aggressive use of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act against chronic chaining and chaining in bad weather.
As friction between Animal Advocates and the BC/SPCA intensified, Animal Advocates sought to overturn the BC/SPCA leadership. The campaign was endorsed by the Pacific Animal Foundation, founded in November 2000 by Lana Simon of North Vancouver. Already the BC/SPCA had come under sporadic media scrutiny for running frequent deficits–$1.2 million, for example, in 1996.
Several years of explosive controversies ensued, including the August 2001 firing of Vancouver shelter executive director Douglas Hooper, the March 2002 firing of 27-year Victoria shelter executive director Lynn West, conflict with the Canadian Union of Public Employers in 2002-2003, and the 2003 closures of BC/SPCA shelters in Chilliwack and Langley.
Twenty-year Victoria BC/SPCA volunteer Mike Stephen, former BC/SPCA provincial volunteer award winner Heather Pettit of Vernon, and Soroski of VOKRA, then a three-time BC/SPCA humanitarian and volunteer-of-the-year award winner, in 2002 formed an organization called Citizens Yell for Accountability to ask questions about BC/SPCA operations. Their BC/SPCA memberships were cancelled in January 2003.
Threatening to sue Stone and Animal Advocates since 2001, the BC/SPCA finally did sue in August 2004. Stone lost her home after using her equity to fund her defense. Both sides were in November 2009 told to more narrowly focus the case, which appears to have ended inconclusively after Stone’s health failed.
Recent years have featured peace, progress, and perhaps even relative prosperity among the greater Vancouver cat rescuers, but the last feral cats in Vancouver may become tame and be adopted before the prevailing wariness among the organizations warms into mutual trust.