cat shelter

Cold, scared and alone: How registered cat colonies are saving lives

Stray cats are always a concern, especially in winter. An East York cat colony caretaker stops at nothing to help them

Denise DiCicco is concerned as she enters the parking lot behind a new residential building at the corner of Gerrard Street East and Woodbine Avenue. It’s minus four degrees and the wind is hitting her face at a chilling speed. She is there to see a cat that she hopes she won’t find.

DiCicco first heard of the cat two weeks ago. She isn’t certain where it came from, but she’s heard residents from the building claim it fell from an apartment window in the spring and has been left outside since.

The unclaimed black cat is very close to DiCicco’s East York cat colony, an alleyway near Greenwood Avenue. That proximity gives DiCicco a sense of responsibility for the cat, and keeps her going back to the parking lot every day to feed it and check on it. 

“No one can approach this cat, he’s so jumpy and scared,” DiCicco said. “It’s so cold out and it’s just getting worse, but the second I try to get close and trap him, he just runs away.”

Cat-colony caretakers in Toronto will register a cat colony within the specific area – usually an alley – where the cats gather. Once a colony is registered, the caretaker is then responsible for immediately having each cat neutered at the Toronto Humane Society, caring for the cats post-surgery, returning them to the colony with proper shelter, and feeding the cats daily.

DiCicco knows what she’s doing when it comes to trapping abandoned cats and rescuing them. She has been a registered cat-colony caretaker for 10 years. Her methods are seen as unorthodox.

Caretakers must complete a Trap, Neuter and Return workshop before they can register a cat colony. The workshop teaches caretakers how to have their cats neutered and, more importantly, how to care for them after the operation. The final step is to return the cats to the colony with proper amenities.

This last step is where DiCicco veers from the norm.

“A lot of people think that if a cat is on the street long enough, they can’t be tamed and adopted.” She shook her head. “That’s crap. Even the roughest of cats who have needed a lot of surgery, I’ve seen them adopted and become the most loving lap cats.”

DiCicco has found homes for many East York cats in her 10 years of being a caretaker. She has never had problems with rehabilitating the cats that come into her colony, which is another reason this black cat is troubling her.

“He is in the system. He’s already been trapped, neutered and adopted,” DiCicco explained. “He’s gone through abandonment twice, and now he’s out in the cold, scared and alone.”

DiCicco rallied community members, from her website and an East York Facebook group. With their help, she raised enough money to buy a trap to help the cat. However, the cat already knows what a trap is and can’t be fooled into entering another. DiCicco is at a loss.

“I wish I knew which shelter he was in before,” she said, looking concerned. “Then I could find out who adopted him and make sure they never do this to another animal.”

DiCicco feels like she’s out of options, but she’s not out of hope. She will continue to visit this parking lot and is posting about it on the Facebook page, from which she has over 100 comments, some from residents in that building.

In the meantime, she urges the community to think about the city’s pets this holiday season. Report stray cats found in neighbourhoods, keep track of your own pets, and donate cat and dog food to local food drives.

“It’s terrible when you see people out on the street. But even worse when they have a cat or a dog with them,” she said. “These pets need food, too.”