A program to make Tuxedo Stan proud

Former sailor driving force behind dockyard shelter for stray cats

Originally appeared in the Halifax Commoner  on November 8, 2012

“Come on, les enfants.”

Pierre Filiatreault walks along an abandoned strip of asphalt at the naval dockyard, a small Ziploc bag in his hand. Seven cats trot along behind him, eager for a sliver of the diced roast beef he carries in the bag.

These are only a few of the almost 40 feral cats that call the dockyard home. Since 2005, Filiatreault has made sure they’re well fed, protected and healthy.

“I had to do something because nobody else was.”

Filiatreault noticed two kittens when he worked at the dockyard.

He started by setting out food and a small cardboard box lined with blankets. He upgraded the boxes until the first heated, insulated shelter was constructed. Tucked away between buildings, the shelter resembles a baby barn; it’s one of five at the dockyard.

Kristin Williams, executive director of the Nova Scotia SPCA, says there are an estimated 26,000 feral cats in HRM.

“That’s definitely a strong indication that there’s a problem with overpopulation.”

The Nova Scotia SPCA recently did a nation-wide survey to explore the issue of overpopulation of stray and feral cats. Ninety-nine per cent of facilities that accept cats are at capacity, Williams says.

She also notes the breeding season for stray cats is getting longer. The Nova Scotia SPCA recently saw another wave of kittens come in.

Williams says this makes it difficult to free space in the shelter. “This is typically the time of year we see a lot of cats adopted.”

The shelter and all foster care homes are currently full.

Filiatreault hasn’t seen a kitten born at the dockyard since 2007. He runs a trap-neuter-return program with the feral dockyard cats.

“I spent some time tracking their patterns before trapping them,” he says. He took the cats to Halifax’s Carnegy Animal Hospital to have them spayed or neutered, vaccinated and examined.

“This guy still hates me for taking him,” Filiatreault says, pointing at one of the skittish orange cats.

The cost of neutering, vaccines, de-worming and flea treatment and a basic medical exam is $200.

Filiatreault also mixes vitamins into the wet food he serves. A large bottle of vitamins for a dozen cats may last two months and costs $160. Feeding the cats each month costs almost $150.

Filiatreault’s initiative, Pierre’s Alley Cat Society, fundraises the majority of the money needed. He was most recently at the Christmas at the Forum craft market, selling 2013 calendars with photos of the cats for each month.

He also collects and cashes in recyclables from the naval base.

“We don’t only use the money to feed these cats, though,” he says. The society recently bought an incubator for a woman in the Annapolis Valley who rescues kittens.

Filiatreault started the society in 2005, while he was working at the dockyard.

“They’re only cats,” he says, lying on the ground trying to coax a cat over to a paper plate piled high with food. He’s wearing an old pair of jeans, and a hoodie that doesn’t quite protect his ears from the morning wind.

“But that doesn’t mean someone shouldn’t love them. They need to eat just as much as we do.”

Hugh Chisholm, owner of Tuxedo Stan, the cat that ran for Halifax mayor last month, applauds Filiatreault’s work.

A former veterinarian, Chisholm decided to create the Tuxedo Party to educate Haligonians on the feral cat problem.

“We wanted to raise awareness of this problem and stimulate the politicians,” he says.

He created a pledge stating that a committee of people like Filiatreault should be created to brainstorm how to decrease the number of feral and stray cats in HRM. Two-thirds of Halifax Regional Council members signed the pledge.

Although Filiatreault is retired from the Navy, he still spends a large portion of his day at the dockyard.

“They’re like my children,” he says. “And if I’m here in the morning to feed them and I don’t see one, I have to come back at night to make sure he’s there. I worry about where he is or what he might have gotten into.”

On Wednesdays, Filiatreault gets to sleep in. A retired colonel visits the dockyard to feed the cats.

But Filiatreault is still busy with the cats seven days a week – cleaning, feeding, building new shelters, and trapping other cats around the city.

All the supplies Filiatreault uses are donated or salvaged from the garbage.

His main kitchen and storage building at the north end of the dockyard is stacked with donated blankets for the shelters. A pile of Styrofoam he found is neatly stacked in the corner, ready to be used when the next shelter is built.

Filiatreault’s goal is to have a cat sanctuary, where he could house many more cats.

Filiatreault would have a section for cats with feline leukemia and other illnesses, where they could live without infecting others.

He’s determined to get the funding.

“When I was in the Navy my evaluations always said I went for the unattainable,” he laughs. “This is no different. I will do this.”

With winter coming, Filiatreault is making sure all his shelters are insulated and in good condition. Inside, there are several levels lined with blankets, like kitty bunk beds.

The feeding stations Filiatreault has set up next to the shelters will soon have heated water bowls, to ensure their water doesn’t freeze. The shelter temperatures will be set around 10 degrees throughout the winter months.

“The nicest part is when you come here in the winter and see them in the window waiting for you. You know they’re warm and safe.”