British Columbia·In Depth

B.C. homeless couple Angus Lemure and Diane Baker want cats back

Angus Lemure and Diane Baker loved their 13 cats like children. So when the couple became homeless, they built a giant cart to house their 'babies'. Now they're in a battle with the SPCA that underscores the difficulties of living rough with pets.

SPCA seized 13 cats from handmade cart couple built to house their pets after eviction

Tanya Baker sits by the handmade cart that her mother's partner made for his 13 cats when they learned they were becoming homeless. (Jason Proctor)

As a homeless man, it's not easy going to court to try to get back what's yours.

When he filled in the forms, Angus Lemure only scrawled one handwritten line under the heading 'relief sought': "I want my kid back".

The 54-year-old and his partner Diane Baker say they loved their cats like children — all 13 of them. When they found themselves about to face eviction, they built a homemade shelter on wheels to house them all.

The empty structure still sits on the patio where Baker's daughter let them stay for two weeks, in Port Coquitlam, before her landlord moved them on, forcing the couple and their cats into a nearby park and ultimately into the sights of the SPCA.

'The most difficult types of cases'

It's a battle which has reached both B.C.'s Farm Industry Review Board (BCFIRB) — the body where citizens appeal animal apprehensions — and the province's Supreme Court.

The case is one that underscores not only the plight of the homeless, but the care of the animals they love.

"This is a very sad case," wrote Corey Van't Haaff, the BCFIRB member who adjudicated Baker and Lemure's case.

"I have great sympathy for the appellants, who have asserted throughout that they have done everything they can, considering the circumstances, and that they loved and cared for their cats adequately throughout their homelessness. There is no dispute regarding the appellants' love for their cats."

That's not a position the BC SPCA's chief enforcement officer, Marcie Moriarty, would dispute.

But she says the agency has a job to do in determining if animals are "in distress" and stepping in when they are.

"These are some of the most difficult types of cases to deal with because of the fact that you are dealing with people who are extremely dedicated to their animals," Moriarty says.

"They're going through a tough time and oftentimes, the animals are what helps them get through."

Officers first met with Lemure and Baker in mid-November 2015 when they wheeled their cart full of cats into Port Coquitlam's Gates Park.

Built out of plywood, foam and chicken wire, the split-level structure is about half the size of an office cubicle. The cats slept on top and accessed their food and litter on the bottom.

Baker told the BCFIRB hearing their routine in the park.

"The cats got Temptation treats day and night. Fresh water was available from the building at the park," Van't Haaff wrote.

The handmade cat cart Angus Lemure made for his 13 cats now sits shuttered on a patio in Port Coquitlam. (Jason Proctor)

"During the day the cats got fresh air and watched the birds, even in the rain when the tarp was closed, there was an open part. It was shut tight at night to keep them warm."

In late fall, the temperature was about 6 C. But in the months that followed, rain turned to snow, and the officers expressed concerns about the weather, ventilation and the cramped quarters.

The SPCA offered to take some of the cats, but the couple couldn't bear to part with any of them.

On January 3, the agency forced the issue, seizing all of them.

In a decision issued two week later, Moriarty addressed Lemure and Baker directly.

The best interest of the cats

"I acknowledge that I simply can't imagine your personal situation of being homeless, especially during the winter time, and that finding affordable housing is a challenge at the best of times, let alone housing that will accept 13 cats," she wrote.

"However, my role is to answer what is in the best interest of the cats at this time."

Three months later, Lemure and Baker moved to a shelter in Vancouver. Lemure was hit by a car last month, but he says things are improving and is hopeful of finding more permanent housing.

But he still wants his cats.

"They're my babies and I'm not giving up on them," he says. "I want to get them back."

Angus Lemure handwrote his B.C. Supreme Court notice of civil claim. (Jason Proctor)

Van't Haaff sided with the SPCA but not because she found the animals were abused, neglected, kept in unsanitary conditions or unprotected from heat or cold — all conditions which require intervention.

"All this leaves is the issue of adequate space and shelter," she wrote.

"I am very sad for the appellants and for their 13 cats which, by all accounts, have formed a loving family. In fact, I am guided by that love in making this decision."

Moriarty says the SPCA is currently "re-homing the cats." Three of the animals have been adopted.

'I can only feel sorry'

Sitting in the sunshine by the shuttered remains of the homemade cart, Baker's daughter, Tanya, says the whole ordeal has been devastating for her mother and Lemure.

She's particularly angry with the $851.88 bill for the SPCA's veterinary expenses which Van't Haaff assessed against the couple.

And that the SPCA sought an order forcing Lemure to pay $10,000 for the cost of boarding the animals as part of their response to his B.C. Supreme Court claim.

Baker hauls out a small urn with a tag on that reads "Blackie Baker" — one of more than a dozen cats she says her mother has had cremated in recent years.

They never intended to have so many cats, the daughter says, but like life, and homelessness, it just happened.

Baker says she'd love to see Lemure and her mother get their animals back, but acknowledges it's unlikely.

"They've been stressed, they didn't know how they were going to survive, and they haven't been able to find a place because all their attention has been getting their animals back," she said.

"I could only feel sorry for the next homeless person that loses their animals."

Read the B.C. Farm Industry Review Board decision

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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