Surrey has a cat problem – a really big cat problem.
Fortunately, there’s a group of people working day and night to fix it. They call themselves the Surrey Community Cat Coalition (SCCC), and on a recent, typically soggy November afternoon, two of their best gave me a lesson on both the issues and the solution.
SCCC reps Lubna Ekramoddoullah and Mona Boucher (pictured from left to right) met me at Newton’s Unwin Park, one of the many sites where the problem has manifested itself. Ekramoddoullah handles the group’s administrative and organizational work, while Boucher is blue-collar all the way – the boots on the ground, so to speak.
Both have stories to tell.
Seems that Surrey is overrun by cats – abandoned, homeless and straight-up feral (wild) cats. Indeed, that’s the very reason the SCCC came into being in the first place.
“Animal welfare has always been a passion of mine,” said Ekramoddoullah, who spent several years volunteering with the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association (VOKRA), an organization that assists abandoned felines throughout the Lower Mainland.
“I’ve always looked for opportunities to help cats, and after I got my own cats, I wanted to become even more involved.
“I was doing a stakeholder engagement project through SFU and wanted to do it on animal welfare,” she continued. “So I went to VOKRA and said I wanted to do more to help the cat overpopulation problem. They said they had it under control in Vancouver, but that they really needed help in Surrey.”
And so, in October of 2014, the Surrey-specific coalition was born. The group’s stated mission: “To end the overpopulation of cats in Surrey and improve their welfare through spay/neuter, adoption, public education, and advocacy.”
But it’s in the individual cases where you really come to understand exactly how the SCCC benefits cats – and people. And one particularly hard-hitting case popped up not long after the society’s formation, back in July of 2015.
Natalie Thomas will never forget it. It was then that Thomas and her family lost their Port Kells home to fire. They soon began the figurative and literal rebuild, and a year later a new home sat on their rural five-acre parcel. But something happened in the interim. And for an animal lover like Thomas, that something was very, very important.
You see, in the years before the fire, she’d become a cat person. Seems that in her neck of the woods, feral cats are commonplace. And Thomas would help them. Through the bad weather when they couldn’t forage on their own, she’d feed them. When she spotted a frail cat or a youngster, she’d work with a local cat shelter.
But as the Thomases waited for their new home to complete, the feline dilemma had grown far more complex. More cats had arrived on the scene, and more kittens were born. Yet the family, living in an off-property rental, could no longer dedicate the time to assist.
And that’s when Natalie Thomas reached out. She contacted VOKRA, which in turn put her in touch with its newly-formed SCCC partner and a woman by the name of Anne Salomon.
Salomon is one of a select group of people known as “cat trappers” – folks who catch homeless and abandoned cats and get them the help they so desperately need.
“Anne came over within 24 hours, she brought traps, she taught us how to use them,” Thomas recalled. “We trapped our first kitten within the first day.
“Since then there’s been more wild cats,” she added. “One was a totally starving kitten. And Anne again helped us. These organizations are so important for those who can’t take them in. Before Anne, I was just dropping them off at a facility and we didn’t know what happened after that. They had so many animals.”
Doing nothing wasn’t an option for Thomas.
“I pulled into my driveway once to see a cat in a coyote’s mouth,” she recalled. “My husband came upon one that had been run over. He buried it later. It’s so sad.”
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Back in Unwin Park, Boucher knows the scenario all too well. She too is a cat trapper and has been one for the past 20 years. Passionate to the point of tears, she works from the back of her little hatchback. It’s clogged with cages, food, blankets and medicine (pictured below).
“A site could be someone’s back yard, or a business,” Boucher explained. “We often get calls from works yards. This place I’m trapping right now, there have been cats there for years and no one has really done anything about it. And so they’ve multiplied.
“Now there are upwards of 30 cats in a couple of back yards. They’ve built shelters for them and someone is feeding them sporadically, but not enough to support the size of the colony. So some of them have weepy eyes, they’re just not healthy. They need to be fed regularly, and if they do their job well and hunt and kill their prey, then there’s nothing left for them to eat.”
Clearly, feeding hungry cats on site and getting them proper nutrition is key. But of equal or greater long-term importance is curing illnesses, treating wounds and, of course, slowing the birth rate.
“We take the cat – if it’s an adult – (to) our vet and we have it spayed and neutered,” Boucher said. “It gets tattooed at the same time so it’s identifiable. We also de-flea and de-worm. We then take it to our post-op cottage (east of Surrey in the Fraser Valley).
“Unfortunately we’ve been unable to find any place within the Surrey limits to do post-op care, but one of our volunteers lives out there and has quite a large property, so she’s set up a portable trailer where we do our post-op.”
After that, the cats are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Some, including those that are truly feral and couldn’t exist in captivity, are returned, spayed and neutered, to the original site.
As for the tame cats, “we contact one of the rescue groups and hope and pray we can find a place for them,” Boucher said. “We’ve always been fortunate enough to be able to do that. We’ve been lucky so far.”
Boucher, who earns a living doing accounting work but figures she spends “every spare minute” on cat patrol, has her stories. When asked about the weirdest thing she’s come across, she replied, “Absolutely the seagull. I had set a trap at a site, and when I went back, the door was closed I was all excited. And I lifted the sheet and there was a seagull inside.”
She’s found cats inside the engine compartment of a car, she’s trapped cats using night-vision cameras, and she regularly attracts cats by meowing. Don’t laugh – you have to hear the Boucher meow to believe it. It’s uncanny.
Boucher figures that between her and Salomon, 600-plus cats are trapped every year. And they are just two of what Ekramoddoullah says are “10 to 15” volunteers with the SCCC.
Problem is, that’s not nearly enough. There are currently 30 other known sites the organization has been unable to address, according to Boucher.
“Knowing that they’re out there, and we can’t help them, just kills me,” she said.
Unattended cats have a dim future, Boucher added.
“They can starve to death. Or they’re taken by predators such as coyotes primarily, and sometimes eagles and hawks. Also, not everybody is a nice person – there’s people who have evil intentions. And cars – they get hit by cars and they have terrible injuries. They’re not treated and they slowly suffer and die. It’s just awful.”
The issue, as it often is with grassroots organizations, is money and space. They don’t have enough of the former to treat and spay/neuter nearly as many cats as they need to, and they don’t have enough of the latter to properly house cats longterm.
“We fundraise and we apply for grants,” Ekramoddoullah emphasized. “We’re working with the City of Surrey to get some funding to continue the program. We did a pilot earlier this year with them and it worked out well, so we’re looking at ways to make it work on an ongoing basis. We’re hoping to get charity status and we’ll be out there fundraising. There’s no guaranteed funding for animal welfare at all, really.”
Donations to the Surrey Community Cat Coalition can be made online at Youcaring.com/surreycats or in person at the society’s next meet-and-greet events, on Dec. 3 and 4 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Pet Solutions store at the Dell Shopping Centre, 10616 King George Blvd., Surrey.
Additionally, Boucher said, there are other ways to help improve the situation.
“If you see a cat outside,” she implored, “don’t assume it’s owned by somebody. Put food out, talk to your neighbours, find out if it has an owner. If it doesn’t, if it looks sick or injured, contact a rescue group. Without people contacting us (email email@example.com) and letting us know where they are, we’d never find them.”
Luba Ekramoddoullah (left) and Mona Boucher of Surrey Community Cat Coalition with cat traps at Unwin Park in Newton. (Photo: GORD GOBLE)