There was an estimated 50 cats living in and around a house in Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood as of last week — a difficult case of animal-hoarding.

Across the street from the cat house, though, was the beginning of a solution. A neighbour, Sue McCloskey, had asked cat rescue volunteers to loan her cat carriers to transport the pets from the rundown house, and within a day, she got them.

She lured around 30 cats off the property, into the cat carriers and off to be spayed or neutered, and then adopted.

When asked about the situation, Mayor Rob Ford summed up the process like this: “What they do is trap ‘em, and neuter ‘em, and it’s — I don’t know the exact terminology. I think it’s a trap-and-release program,” he said to a local news station.

He was fuzzy on the details, but Ford was more or less correct. The trap-neuter-release program is a three-step rescue method used by volunteers across Toronto. It gives shelters and rescue groups an alternative to euthanizing homeless cats.

The first step is catching a feral or stray cat using traps, spaying or neutering it, and then determining if it can be adopted as a pet. It the feline is not adoptable, its ear is clipped to denote it is fixed and it is released back into the community and fed by volunteers. It can no longer procreate and deters other stray cats from moving into the area.

Then the population, over time, trends downward, studies show.

“We can’t eliminate every cat but we can slow down the population,” continued Ford.

Even if the mayor is not completely up-to-speed on cat rescue, volunteers say Ford has already spoken more about the cat population problem in Toronto than many of his predecessors.

Toward a No-Kill city

Last March, Irene Borecky was on a mission to save a colony of feral cats living around a senior’s home on Arleta at Sheppard Avenue near Keele Street, and was out of ideas.

The cats were being cared for by residents at the home, a Toronto Community Housing (TCH) building. But the cats were in jeopardy after notices went up in that senior’s residence requesting tenants stop feeding feral cats on the TCH property.

Borecky confronted landlords, repeatedly contacted TCH head Gene Jones and protested the notices at the property — all to no avail.

Then she phoned Ford directly. After that, the notices came down, and the situation appeared resolved.

“Thank God for Rob Ford,” she says, crediting the mayor for helping.

The fact that Ford spoke to her, and other cat rescue volunteers, has galvanized her to push him for animal welfare reform in the city.

The endgame for her and other feral cat activists is to make Toronto a no-kill city, in which under 10 per cent of cats taken into shelters are euthanized. San Francisco, Atlanta, Ga., and Austin, Texas, are examples of cities that have already implemented that policy.

This week, a Municipal Licensing and Standards Committee tabled recommendations on feline euthanasia, specifically using best practices from New York and other cities. Council votes on adopting those guidelines on October 9.

Borecky wants the mayor to vote in favour, and to take the issue to his base of supporters, the so-called Ford Nation.

“We need the community to rally around a figurehead,” Borecky said of her fellow cat rescuers. “And that’s Rob Ford.”  

Meeting targets

In Ford’s office on Monday, Borecky, the mayor, representatives from Toronto Animal Services and policy makers sat down to discuss the feral and stray cat population in Toronto.

Borecky lobbied for the meeting for months, approaching him at his Ford Fest community party and calling in to his radio show numerous times.

At the meeting, she described the merits of no-kill programs to the mayor, and outlined the ethical reasons for instituting it.

The mayor’s interest was piqued, though, when Borecky spoke about what it costs the city per year to continue to euthanize cats — a figure she says is a large part of Toronto Animal Services budget.

The economics of trap-neuter-release and no-kill programs is Borecky’s main platform for attracting the mayor’s attention. She goes back to it often.

“I told him about Reno, Nev. It’s small and economically depressed. But when they moved no-kill they made $11 million in donations,” she says. “Because the community supports it.”

Toronto Feral Cat Coalition also points out that the current trap-neuter-release program is taxpayer-friendly, as it’s all volunteer-run.

On Wednesday of this week, Borecky gave a deputation to the Municipal Standards and Licensing Committee on euthanization, again stressing the taxpayer cost to euthanizing cats.

“I’m trying to lobby the right wing, to get them to understand,” says Borecky. “There’s a different way to do it that doesn’t mean asking for more money.”

Currently, the Toronto Humane Society, OSPCA and Toronto Animal Services would be considered “kill shelters.” The city would have to reduce its euthanized cat count to 10 per cent of the number of cats taken in for it to be considered no-kill.

“This mayor is our only hope,” says Borecky, who says she is now is outright campaigning among cat rescue groups for Ford's re-election in 2014.

Toronto Animal Services veterinarian Ester Attard is not convinced the city can get to no-kill, but says there is progress being made.

“I am not sure that we can achieve this,” she says, citing the fact the program is open admission, taking all cats in.

“What we have been doing and trying to improve on each year is using as many strategies as possible to re-home or transfer all adoptable and treatable animals in our care. The trap-neuter-release program gives us an option for feral cats as prior the only option we had for these cats was to euthanize.”

Toronto feral cats

A cat in a Toronto Humane Society shelter in 2012.

Call to action

Ford’s brief comments on the trap-neuter-release program were not well-publicized and constituted a little over a minute of a local news time. But cat rescue groups are seizing the moment regardless.

“Now is the time to call his office and ask him to put more resources towards helping feral cats in Toronto,” read a Facebook message from Toronto Street Cats, a member of the Toronto Feral Cat Coalition, a group of 10 organizations whose mandate is to help reduce feral cat overpopulation in Toronto.

Others are making personal appeals to the mayor, who is known to return phone calls and answer his own phone.

“Now is the perfect time to call Ford and ask him to put more resources and funds towards helping cats in this city,” wrote the Toronto Feral Cat Project in a release. “Here's his number: 416-397-FORD (3673). He does call people back!”

Many volunteers have reported phoning the mayor.

A question of politics?

It is estimated there are more than 100,000 feral cats in Toronto. That number is considered by some as conservative, since the standard measurement is 100,000 cats per million people.

Coinciding with Ford’s mayoralty, trap-neuter-release has become a city policy. And the results can be seen in the declining number of cats euthanized. In 2012, Toronto Animal Services reported 3,517 cats euthanized, down from 5,602 in 2011. 

So far in 2012, roughly 3,200 cats have been euthanized.

Whether the mayor will take action on homeless cats before the next election — or at all — is uncertain. But the prospect of him helping seems to be enough to get volunteers in his corner.

“Please put your politics aside if you are a leftie,” said Borecky recently in an online forum for Toronto cat volunteers, “and reach out to this mayor.”