Inside Adoption Room #2, on the second floor of the Toronto Animal Services South building, Nicola Ware was surveying the tiny clipboards attached to each stainless-steel cat kennel, looking for the word “Protective.” The animal-care control officer slowed down in front of one cage, head tilted to read the kennel card. “You were protective, weren’t you?” Ware cooed at the timid-looking cat through the bars, then clanged the door open. “Want to come out?”
Last year, 10,572 animals ended up in one of Toronto’s four city-run shelters. The majority were strays, and most of the others were given up by their owners. A much smaller number—469—were taken in under what’s called “protective care.” Those animals are ones whose owners, for whatever reason, suddenly can’t look after them: Maybe they’ve gotten arrested, or died, or been rushed to the hospital, or lost everything in a fire.
Three and a half years ago, when a spent cigarette flicked onto a 24th-floor balcony of 200 Wellesley ignited the six-alarm blaze that put 1,700 people out of their homes, dozens of pets arrived at the south shelter, on the Exhibition Place grounds. Veterinarian Dr. Stephanie Sparling remembered arriving to work the Monday morning after the fire. “It was a big shock to me,” she said. “We had banks and banks of cats that smelled like smoke. Now, when I hear the news reporting a fire in an apartment building, I wonder how many animals we’ll end up with.”
This time around, the shelter was scrambling to deal with an eviction. At the beginning of December, TAS’s emergency mobile response unit was called to a cluttered Parkdale apartment, where they found 31 cats: “Too many animals for one person to look after,” said Ware. With all protective-care animals, staff spend at least a week trying to find owners, or someone else close to them who can take the animals in. That can mean anything from sending letters to jails to tracking down next-of-kin or executors of wills. But most of the time, the animals go unclaimed. Ten days after this particular clowder of cats arrived, the evicted woman’s “circumstances continued to be such that she was not in a position to take them back,” as Ware carefully put it. In mid-December, all the cats became City of Toronto property.
The shy cat in Adoption Room #2, who animal-services staff named Niblet for his fondness for nibbling on fingers, was one of the 31. So was Mawali, an older, thicker black cat on the other side of the room, and, one room over, Frank, Midge, Ted, Ed, and Edie. Unlike strays, protective-care animals, especially hoarded ones, don’t usually do well in shelters, and often arrive sick. Even though two especially ill cats in the group had to be put down, the rest arrived in what Ware said was “pretty good condition,” considering none had likely ever been to a vet or vaccinated, and all had to be sterilized and treated for Coccidiosis, a parasitic infection. (“It causes really icky poops,” said Ware.)
By mid-January, the youngest of the cats were already gone, sent off to Toronto Cat Rescue to be put up for adoption. Six of the older cats had found new homes. For all the chaos around them, the remaining seven cats at the shelter hardly seemed bothered by the whole experience, and when Niblet finally lept out of his open crate, he drifted along the tile floor of the bright room, taking it all in, ready enough for whatever would come next.
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