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Cat fight at city hall

Charity demands refund after being charged for stray felines

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The actions of Oshawa’s bylaw department are being labelled as “arbitrary,” “obstructionist” and even “sabotage” following the billing of a charitable organization for picking up feral cats from a city shelter.

Denise Harkins, president of Action Volunteers for Animals (AVA), appeared before the community services committee to ask for a refund on the $193 her organization was charged for picking up a pair of feral cats who belong to a local Oshawa cat colony. The cats had been trapped by a local resident.

“I don’t know of any cities that fine caretakers for picking up feral cats,” Harkins said.

The issue began in early February, when AVA was notified that a pair of cats had been turned over to Oshawa’s animal services. After a back and forth process to pick up the cats, Harkins says she was billed $50 apiece for impound fees and a lifetime license for both felines.

“I was just about ready for a meltdown at this point,” she says.

Harkins argues that these animals, as part of a colony managed under the Trap Neuter Return (TNR) program, are cared for by a caretaker, but are not pets.

TNR programs help to alleviate issues with feral cats, whose populations can skyrocket if left unattended.

Harkins’ delegation also came with a letter of support from the Toronto Street Cats organization, which labelled the practice of billing colony caretakers “grossly unfair.”

“We urge you to reconsider the charges recently levied against feral cat colony caretakers, citizens who already spend considerable sums of their own money in their efforts to control the population of feral cats in Oshawa,” the letter reads.

Animal advocate Martin Field was also on hand for the meeting and questioned the actions of bylaw that “flies in the face of both past practice and logic.”

“We are deeply concerned and troubled,” he says. “We consider the recent actions by the city’s bylaw department as poor groundwork.”

Field, along with other advocates, were at city hall in January where they had councillors agree to look into the possibility of implementing a TNR program.

Last year, AVA helped to adopt 1,260 cats and helps manage an active TNR program. The charitable organization helps locate feral cat colonies, care for the animals and have them spayed, neutered and microchipped.

“All of this costs a lot of money – money the City of Oshawa has not had to spend on these cats,” she says.

Working with 15 different vets across the GTA, AVA, relying on donations and fundraising, paid more than $220,000 in vet bills last year.

Harkins says that up until this point, she has had easy dealings with Oshawa’s animal services, and has never been charged for picking up feral cats.

However, according to Kevin Feagan, the manager of municipal law enforcement, these animals can not be returned to their owner without payment.

“In the current situation…we’re not able to return a cat to its owner without the payment of those fees,” he says. “Our bylaws are very similar to other municipalities.”

He could provide no explanation as to why the ferals would have been handed over to Harkins without payment in the past.

“I don’t think I could speculate,” he says.

Oshawa is governed by the provincial Animal Research Act, which regulates how municipalities can operate their pounds.

Councillor Rick Kerr stressed that the issue of fees needs to be addressed in the current review of municipal law enforcement and as part of the city’s report on a TNR program to help these community organizations.

“These people do an awful lot of work in the community,” he said.

Due to the provincial regulations, councillors were unable to provide a refund on the charges to AVA.