People call him the crazy cat man.
"I don't care," says Pierre Filiatreault, digging into a greasy Ziploc of boiled and cubed Costco beef. "It won't stop me from doing my work."
Crazy cat man he may be---it's a by-definition by-gone for a guy who looks after 40 cats---but Pierre Filiatreault may be the most sensible voice in feral animal control in HRM.
And in two languages, no less.
"Vient manger? Charlie? Charlie Brown...Charlie...come here..."
Charlie Brown, a burly orange and white tabby who will dance on his back legs for a treat, had popped out from behind a building when he heard the engine of Filiatreault's Blue Ford Ranger XLT.
He was probably waiting for his breakfast. Cats have enviously (and irritatingly) accurate internal clocks and Filiatreault is there every weekday at 6:30am to feed the cats their morning meal. On weekends he sleeps in and arrives at 8. The cats must hate that.
D-2 is next, approaching the now-stopped truck's open door with a caution reserved for---and perhaps characteristic of---wild cats.
Out of the truck, there's a timid flood around 48-year-old Filiatreault. Or, at least, in a 15-foot radius of the bottom of his Levis. Weaving, observing, narrow-eyed and always-guarded cats loom. Captain Binou, Orancina and Trixy arrive---all of the 40 cats here are three or four years old, most have thick coats and, says Filiatreault, "some people say they are chubby."
More felines saunter in, a dozen in total. The Puffy Brothers---White Puff and Puffy Tail---don't show today. There are 19 cats in all in the North End Gang, living on the waterfront roughly around the latitudinal base of Young Street.
Farther south, under a leg of the Macdonald Bridge, is the Catty Shack Gang---another 11 live in that gentle mob. Other cats, the ones not accepted in those cliques, live scattershot around the Halifax Dockyard, a Department of National Defence property that extends from the Irving Shipyard to the Casino. This is where Filiatreault has worked since 2005. He's taken care of the cats, with the blessing of his bosses, pretty much since he arrived.
And if he didn't care for the cats? "I'm sure [they] would survive but"---he shrugs---"they wouldn't be as healthy-looking. And their lives? They would probably be two years max. Three years."
That's it? That's why he spends on cats what is, added up, probably the equivalent of another full-time job?
"I've done a lot of things in my life to help people," he says. "It's time to help animals who cannot help themselves."
The cats all know their own names, but that's the closest to domestication most come. A handful gets close enough to Filiatreault that he can put Revolution---a flea medication---on their necks. But only three of 40 understand what it means when he flicks a toy on a string; "Mou-Mou?" Filiatreault says, "It took her two years to learn to play." There are shows of affection, though. Or at least gestures of alpha-cat surrender; they leave Filiatreault mice and rat offerings once or twice a day.
"If you can gain the trust of a feral animal," says Filiatreault, who only has one cat, Zorro, at home, not to mention a very supportive wife, "that means a lot."
The Dockyard swallows a huge chunk of prime waterfront real estate in Halifax, but instead of defining the city by its geographic heft, the Dockyard's inaccessibility to average Haligonians makes the base functionally invisible. It's like the city ends at Barrington Street, rather than the water's edge.
Filiatreault's cats are almost invisible, too. "Some people say 'We have cats in the Dockyard? I have never seen them. And I've been here 20 years!'" he says.
And yet, the cats have always been there too, just like similar colonies lay claim to other parts of the city. "Every neighbourhood has cat problems," says Timberlea-Prospect councillor Reg Rankin. "I don't think if we reduce the numbers the cats would be greatly offended."
And the Dockyard, since Filiatreault began his compassionate crusade four years ago, has seen just that change in its feral cat gangs. There are fewer joining. And the ones there are healthier.
"All it takes is one female and a couple of males," Filiatreault says. "Abandoned by humans. They make their way by eating what they can. She gets pregnant. Those become feral cats. The males look for love elsewhere and the population explodes. Halifax is full of them. Dartmouth is full of them."
But not the Dockyard. Not anymore.
That's thanks to Filiatreault, who carves three or four hours out of every day to run his trap-neuter-release (TNR) program.
It works just like it sounds. Filiatreault sets live traps and brings the cats to a vet. (He won't say which one offers the partly donated services---"he will be flooded with people needing help and he's already overworked.") If they're in good health Filiatreault's society (Pierre's Alley Cats Society, or PACS) pays to have them spayed or neutered. After recovery, they go back to their colony.
Pierre Filiatreault's program works. "I haven't had kittens in three years," he says.
And he wants to expand.
"No meddling with licenses," he says. "I want [council] to give me money to sponsor a TNR program for the city."
And 300,000 people scream: not the cats again.
Roaming cats have been on council's agenda who-knows-how-many times in the last who-knows-how-many years.
Cat-talk dominated Halifax Regional Council chambers---and certainly council media coverage---for a healthy stretch of 2007. A year after the latest cat debate was put to bed. (The upshot? Cats would not have to be registered.) Halifax's mayoral race saw cat-chat claw to the surface again, symbolizing all that was wrong with council members and their leader, mayor Peter Kelly. During the October 2008 election, council was criticized as a gaggle of small thinkers in a big city, who focused on spraying strays when they could have been tackling crime, transportation and downtown development.
Cats. They're a real flash point for us.
Eighteen councillors, including the mayor, were voted back to their seats in October. Mayor Kelly---duly chastised---has since been working to reign in off-on-a-tangent councillors.
Pam Berman covers municipal affairs for CBC Radio in Halifax. She says since the election Kelly has been acting like a stronger chair at council sessions. "He got the sense from the community that enough is enough. Get a grip on things down there. We don't want [council] endlessly talking about inane subjects."
Councillors took their own warning---can it on the friggin' cats.
As a result, on the topic of a city-wide TNR program, these days some councillors resemble Filiatreault's Dockyard felines. Meowing on the sidelines but reluctant to engage.
Here's councillor Reg Rankin, who knows there are problems all over the city with "cats that don't have an address":
"I'm very much in support of the trap-neuter-release program."
And here's downtown councillor Dawn Sloane, who's currently feeding a large "lackadaisical" unneutered feral feline (her nickname: David Puddy) who visits her front step:
"I've asked for TNR ever since we started talking about the cat bylaw."
And, she adds, "I noticed that Jim Smith is now on board."
Sloane makes mention because north Dartmouth councillor Jim Smith is known as the anti-cat guy. He was an outspoken supporter of the struck-down portion of the so-called cat bylaw that would have required licensing and which gave Animal Control officers the power to trap, and in some cases euthanize, roaming cats.
But Smith says he's always been game.
"I've brought it up in council a number of times, but no one wants to put any money on it."
Maybe that's because since the cat bylaw kerfuffle "no one wants to talk about cats," as councillor Sloane puts it.
But it's more than that. Despite mayor Kelly's attempts, keeping council on point is a bit like, um, herding cats.
"What council is maybe fearful of," Rankin says, "is that this will go off in another direction...Are they going to talk about the shelter, are they going to talk about fines, are they going to talk about cats at large?"
Smith agrees. "When you bring something forward like this, it gets bent all out of shape."
So to do it, Rankin says, "takes a little bit of courage."
Reg Rankin, who asked city staff for a report on the feasibility of a city-wide TNR program in the very thick of the cat debate, is the closest now to dipping in his toes. "If several councillors give me a call and they are in support, then maybe we can take something concrete in."
To Rankin, TNR is common sense. "Government," he says, "is there to do the things for people that they are otherwise unable to do."
Unless, of course, they're Pierre Filiatreault.
Filiatreault is inside the Catty Shack.
It's a portable shed---the kind out in the parking lot at the Bayers Lake Kent. But this one is heated. It never goes below 10 degrees. "It's nice," Filiatreault smiles, "when you park out there and it's minus 15. And you see them warm in the window."
There are sturdy plywood shelves along the interior walls of the Catty Shack with tidily folded blankets set up as cat beds; there are bags and cans of food and containers of hand sanitizer. The floors are swept and disinfected. There are toys and treats, a litter box, scratching posts---all donated.
"It smells like a cat house," he apologizes. "Or, a cat shelter. To me, I'm French, so 'cat house' doesn't mean anything." Filiatreault met George Canyon in the autumn at a concert, "He said, 'Pierre, what do you do?' I said, 'I run a cat house down at the Dockyard.'" Filiatreault laughs. "He has very good humour. Maybe he'll do a benefit concert for a TNR program."
The cash would be a boon for Filiatreault, who spends not only his time but his own money on the cats.
In the Catty Shack, Filiatreault stands up to stir scoops of Viralys L-Lysine powder into a bowl of wet and dry food. The medicine helps protect the cats from feline herpes, a common upper respiratory virus. The container costs $97.
Filiatreault keeps his cat resources in the black by getting food donations and collecting recyclable bottles around the base. He produced a benefit calendar for 2009 with photos of the cats (and sold out 700 copies). A little girl he knows got kids to come to her 11th birthday party last year with gifts for the Catty Shack, instead of her---food and kitty litter. Pierre's Alley Cats Society accepts donations through the Bank of Montreal, but so far, he has only had two. He also has a small budget from the Department of National Defence.
"The previous admiral was aware and was very supportive of what I did," says Filiatreault, who is a marine engineer and has been in the navy for 31 years, since he left Montreal as a 17-year-old. "I think if I had started at the bottom of the chain of command---'can I have a shelter?'---it would have been: 'Are you crazy?'"
"Right now," he says, "I am stable in the Dockyard and that's why I want to reach out and help other people."
Filiatreault is talking about the other TNR programs he helps support around Halifax. One example: PACS got $5,000 last year from the city to run a TNR pilot in Dartmouth.
Councillor Jim Smith remembers the grant. "It was a project on Myrtle Street. I don't know how that worked out, but for $5000, you can only [spay and neuter] 30 or 40 cats."
And how many feral cats are there in HRM?
If only they had thumbs and could fill in a census.
A 2007 report on TNR programs pegs the number of domesticated, owned cats in HRM at either 39,000, using a model developed by the city of Calgary which extrapolates on a cats-per-house formula, or, the report indicates, there could be a whopping 93,000 cats here, if cat-counters put faith in a 2005 HRM-commissioned consultant document that relies on cat-per-person extrapolation.
Superintendent Robin McNeil, who is the go-to cop for animal issues, was the man on these numbers. In his staff report, he couldn't determine which were accurate. Today he suspects, "it's somewhere in the middle there."
"I do have a number for you," says an expectant Andrea MacDonald, HRM's manager of Animal Services.
According to an Ipsos-Reid poll conducted in Halifax in September 2008, which determined the number of cats per household, there are 109,362 cats in Halifax.
Remember, these are owned, domesticated cats, as councillor Rankin might call them, cats with an address. But the number is relevant for our discussion here. Based on Robin McNeil's research---and MacDonald says it's likely accurate---the housed cat population matches the feral and stray numbers cat-for-cat.
McNeil determined TNR surgery and recovery would cost, at minimum, $300 per cat. That's 33 million bucks.
Those aren't all first-year costs, and, heck, maybe the number of cats isn't even that high. But there's no getting around it: $33 million is a terrific figure.
But Filiatreault looks at it this way. Right now most feral cats are either left to reproduce and die early (which doesn't cost anything directly, but compounds the problem) or, they are captured and euthanized and cremated, which isn't free.
Trapping is part of the equation either way. Euthanization and cremation may be less expensive than surgery and recovery, but ultimately, Filiatreault says, destroying cats doesn't solve the problem.
It's reproduction 101.
In the '90s at the Dockyard, the feral cat families were rounded up and exterminated. "But they came back," he says. "They will always come back."
Councillor Jim Smith agrees. "There's a lot of evidence that [TNR] works in the long run. If you just take the cats out of their wild environment, other cats will replace them. So, you do it through attrition. Spay and neuter them and let them go, and eventually the colony will shrink in size naturally."
And so will the cost to the city. And so will the misery of sick, cold, wet cats. "It's all politics," Filiatreault says. "Because it costs money."
Petit-Loup pokes a nose into the Catty Shack. Then, deciding it's safe, starts to wolf down the medicated food.
Filiatreault will retire from the navy in June. Then, he says, "I'll have nothing else to do but play with the cats."
Or, maybe, run the city's TNR program.
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