The cats of Parliament Hill

Fat cats in Canada's parliament? Quite possibly, but only if Rene Chartrand and his volunteers have been too liberal with the feeding bowl. Because the felines in question are not politicians, but some of the world's best-cared for feral cats, which have their own private constituency in purpose-built accomodation on Canada's Parliament Hill.

From about the time that Canada's maple leaf flag first flew over the parliament buildings in 1965, Canada's lawmakers have shared the hill with a feral cat colony of some 20 to 40 cats. Some local historians suggest that the cats have been there even longer, and may even have been hanging around the Victorian military buildings which in those days gave the place the name of Barracks Hill.

In fact the hill is more of a mini-plateau, with a victorian-style summer pavilion and views of the Ottawa river through the trees. Also overlooking the river are the quarters of the Parliament Hill cats, which have been built with the same French-style roofs as the parliament buildings themselves.

Photograph by Klaus-Jens Gerken (Parliament Hill cats)

Each of the structures has four cubby-holes in which the cats can shelter. There is a boardwalk in front, and a veranda to keep the elements at bay, though the cats are just as happy to enjoy good weather while sprawling on the veranda roofs. The parliament cats have their own tree-shaded enclosure, but this is more to keep stray humans out than stray cats in - the cats can easily slip through the gates and roam the hill. Indeed, it is suggested that the cats are allowed to remain on this government-owned property because they help to control the mice and rats within the parliament buildings themselves. (Though more than one visitor has complained that the cats can do nothing about the two-legged variety of rat in the legislative assembly.)

The colony's 'formal' existence began when a local woman, Irene Desormeaux, took the plight of the strays to heart and arranged for their feeding. When she died, she passed the torch to fellow cat lover Rene Chartrand in 1987, and though now in his 80s, Rene Chartrand has carried on the good work with such unfailing zeal that he recently won the Humane Society of Canada's Heroes for Animals Award.

As might be expected of feral strays, some cats come and go, but many, such as White mother, Max, Shadow and Fluff are well-known features of the hill. Indeed many tourists find the cats at least as fascinating as the parliament buildings, and their contributions go a long way to help cover the $6000 or so that it takes every year to keep the shelter running.

The Parliament Hill cats now have their own blog with charming pictures of the cats and their everyday activities. One of these pictures, of 'the King of the Hill', is included on this page. The celebrity status of the cats can only increase further with a book about Parliament Hill by writer Don Nixon, in which the cats have a section to themselves.

Canada's current top cat, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has a famously soft spot for moggies (his current cat is an orange Tabby called Cheddar), and his wife, Laureen dedicates considerable time to fostering strays through the SPCA, so it seems that the future of Parliament Hill's cats is bright. The tower of London has its iconic ravens, Gibraltar its apes - and now Parliament Hill's cats look set to achieve the same status.

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