Parliament Hill is populated with statues and stately buildings – and, of course, plenty of living politicians. But it was an oddball colony of cats, with names such as the Kid, No. 1 and Fluffy, that left a lasting impression on many visitors.
Just a short walk from Parliament’s front door, near the Queen Victoria statue, stray felines thrived for decades under the care of doting volunteers. (One even built a shingled two-storey shelter that resembled the Centre Block.) But in January, the last kitties headed indoors and the cat sanctuary closed. The Globe spoke to Brian Caines, a long-time volunteer.
It’s been said the sanctuary began as a way to support the cats laid off from mousing duty in the halls of Parliament. What’s the real story?
There were mousers in the Parliamentary buildings. And there were Senate debates in the 1950s when they were no longer needed, but there’s no indication on whatever happened to the mousers. Certainly there have been cats for many years in that vicinity. One of the stories was there was a dump at the foot of Bank Street. That’s the story that makes the most sense to me because wherever there’s refuse, there’s going to be cats – because there’s always going to be mice. In the 1970s, Irene Desormeaux started taking care of them.
The sanctuary survived on donations and the dedication of its volunteers. There was even the Catman of Parliament Hill – René Chartrand – who took care of the animals into his 80s...
René was a special person. He was entertaining. He was willing to talk to anyone and he was always in a really good mood. He really popularized the place.
The cats had a blog and Facebook page. What made the sanctuary so popular?
It was unique. I think the Centre Block was the most visited area, and then it was the cat sanctuary. It was on the booklets for the Parliament Hill tours. It was on a game show in Japan. They’d be part of bus tours. In the early 2000s, there were shows that [aired] all over the world that featured the cats of Parliament Hill. You could tell where they had been shown recently because suddenly, there’d be all Swedish visitors or all these visitors from Australia or New Zealand.
There were four cats left – Coal, Spot, Bugsy and Ti-Gris – when the caregivers moved them into homes. What was behind the decision?
Once all the colony was spayed and neutered, and once the abandoned cats were being adopted, it was inevitable that the sanctuary would end. One of my concerns was that there’s wildlife on the escarpment. There are families of foxes, and people claim they’ve seen coyotes. My big worry is that fishers are moving into the city. As the cats got older, their defences reduced. A number of them are 15 or 16 years old.
How are those last cats making the transition to indoor living?
They’ve all integrated remarkably well. It shows that the cats had really become domesticated. We have four cats – and all at one point lived on the Hill. Cats like comfort. And they’re certainly very happy to be in from the cold.
This interview has been edited and condensed.