It’s a Monday night and Linda Felix and a couple of volunteers are getting ready for World Spay Day, which is always the fourth Tuesday in February. Five clinics around the city will help with the spaying and neutering of 50 cats whose owners can’t afford the procedure.
“That’s not going to address all the applications I have,” Felix said. “The applications come in every day.”
World Spay Day got its start in 1995 by “the” Doris Day and her Doris Day Animal League. Now groups around the world take part in the event. Today in Halifax, seven volunteers will drive to pick up the cats, take them to the clinics for the procedure, and bring them back to their owners, all of whom are low-income cat owners.
Spay Day HRM has been in this building, which was once a rental cottage for tourists overlooking the Bedford Highway, for a year now. There are a few different rooms for the animals, some of which are new here and not yet used to people. Another room has cages where cats rest after surgeries. Still other rooms, complete with cat toys and cat condos, are for cats ready for adoption. It’s a big operation now, but Felix started Spay Day HRM with just a few cats in April 2011.
“I had a constant stream of pregnant cats, sick cats, kittens in my yard. I was fairly new to Halifax at that time and when I would call the SPCA, Bide Awhile, everyone was full,” Felix said in an interview with the Examiner. “Their waiting lists were like 300 cats long and there was no place to get help.”
She saw a documentary on CBC about projects in the US where groups would do a spay day of about 50 cats. That was her initial idea, but it didn’t pan out because she couldn’t find clinics to do that kind of work. So she did some fundraising and started a spay and neuter program with one cat, then another cat, and gradually the community welcomed the program and more cats were spayed or neutered.
“We’ve grown each year and now we’re at over 5,800 cats that we’ve spayed or neutered over 12 years,” Felix said.
In its time, Felix and the volunteers at Spay Day managed to get the feral cat population under control in the city with a trap-neuter-release (TNR) program. Felix and volunteers would go to neighbourhoods across the city to trap cats, have them spayed or neutered, and release them again. Their contract with the city for that program ended in March 2022, and the SPCA will take it over as of April 1 this year.
Still, Felix said there’s a lot more to be done.
‘People who don’t have cats don’t value them in society’
For Felix, who will soon turn 65, Spay Day HRM just started out as a weekend project. She works a full-time, 9-5 job and stops into the shelter every night after work. Some days she stops in on her way to work to see how the cats are doing. The days are long, but the cats are worth it, she said. She has help from about 30 volunteers whose roles range from taking care of the cats in the shelter to fundraising.
“I have a great team of people. I would never be able to do this by myself,” she said. “It’s in my blood. It’s part of my life now.”
Cats get a bad rap, Felix said, and many people don’t value them.
“Cats are the most popular pet in North America. There are more cats in homes than dogs. If you go to the pet store, you will see more dog stuff than cats. Most bylaws address dogs, not cats. They’re just treated as the underdog and it’s not fair,” Felix said. “They suffer outside, especially if they’re from a home and they’ve never been outside. This idea that they’re going to go catch a mouse and live happily ever after is not true.”
She thinks Halifax is the model for how a city should treat its cat population, even though HRM doesn’t have a cat bylaw. She credits Halifax regional council and other animal welfare groups, such as the Nova Scotia SPCA and Bide Awhile, for helping out and all working together.
Felix and the volunteers here take in the cats other shelters can’t or won’t. These cats may have behaviourial issues or they’re cats that have been living outside for a long time. The cats stay here until they’re ready to go to a new home. They are fed well and get some playtime and socialization with people.
Felix won’t adopt out cats to just anyone, and she said the adoption process is tough. They even check people’s social media to see if they’ve lost a cat. As part of the adoption contract, new owners must agree to keep the cat indoors. Outside, Felix said, is a danger for cats. There are cars and other animals that hunt them. To date, Spay Day HRM has found homes for 1,500 cats.
And this shelter is the only one that has volunteers to pick up cats to take for the spaying or neutering. That helps pet owners who are on low incomes and couldn’t find a way to get their cat to the vet.
Cats and the housing crisis
Through the rescue efforts, Felix sees another side of the housing crisis in the city. As more people are evicted from their homes, their cats often end up out on the street. Some of the cats at the shelter now were surrendered by people who are now homeless. Two of the cats were surrendered by people who couldn’t afford to feed the cats. Another two cats were surrendered by people who lived in apartments, but were forced out. Abandonment of cats is huge right now, Felix said.
“That will evolve into a feral problem as those cats give birth outside, then we have a resurgence of feral cats. It’s a vicious circle,” Felix said.
“When you’ve got nowhere to go, travelling with a cat is hard. I have spayed and neutered cats for people living in their car. Can you imagine sleeping in your car with a stinky, unneutered male cat? That’s the dire situation now for the animals in the city. It’s not just people who become homeless; it’s everything in their home that becomes homeless. Their children are homeless. Their pets are homeless.”
Felix said she’s learned a lot about the city through cats. She sees a lot of poverty picking up cats from owners who can no longer afford them.
People mean well, Felix said. People adopt a cat with the plan to get it spayed or neutered and then when they make an appointment for the procedure, they learn about the cost, which is more than a few hundred dollars.
“Even though they want to have their cat spayed or neutered, they clearly can’t afford it,” Felix said. “Like everything else in society, prices have gone way up. Even the price of cat food, which was 39 cents two years ago, is now more than one dollar.”
Another way to help people and cats in the housing crisis, Felix said, is for landlords to accept at least one pet in their rentals.
“I don’t blame [the landlords] if animals are causing damage, but if the cats and dogs are spayed and neutered there’s less problem with that. I don’t see why an old lady can’t take her neutered cat along with her when she goes into an apartment,” Felix said. “I think you have a nicer tenant when you have someone with a pet that’s calm and quiet and provides a loving home. It’s also providing a loving home in your apartment building.”
Cats adjust amazingly well to a new home, a new person, even if they’ve been abandoned by their owners.
“They’re a wonderful animal, very loving, especially after some of them, the kind of life they’ve had. If they come from a situation of cruelty, abuse, or abandonment, they give humans a second chance,” Felix said. “It’s amazing.”
Felix said she remembers a lot of the stories of the cats they’ve rescued and then adopted out over the years. There was a cat whose owner brought it to Halifax from Montreal. It was a bit cantankerous and when the owner had to move to a nursing home, her family had to take it in. Felix said that cat became a loving member of the family. More recently, there was a cat that was hit by a car that Felix and the volunteers at Spay Day helped out.
On the Spay Day Facebook page, they chronicle stories of the felines they have rescued and then adopted out. One of the regular posts is called Memory Mondays. Felix said the stories offer updates for people who donate to Spay Day, but also just a happy story for everyone.
Felix said she remembers, too, how the situations of cats was ignored. She recalls talking with an owner of mobile home park where she and her team were going to trap cats for neutering and spaying. Felix had to get permission to be on the property, but the owner dismissed Felix and the volunteers as “crazy cat ladies.”
“I had to say ‘you have a dead cat on your welcome sign. When people drive in here, do you think they want to live here with you?’ When you drive in a park and see cats everywhere, sick cats, do you think that’s a good welcome to a potential buyer or renter in your area?’” Felix said. “Finally, he said, ‘yeah, do what you’ve got to do.’ You don’t want an overpopulation of cats, especially sick cats.”
‘Everybody should have a cat’
As for the future, Felix said she’d like to get a more permanent spot for the shelter. They currently rent the space in Bedford. And she wants to see more younger people get involved.
“I wish more people would get involved with animals and support fosters and adopt,” she said. “Stop bringing in cats [from other communities] that are not spayed or neutered with no plan to get them spayed or neutered. We need to keep the cat population at bay and healthy and safe.”
“The future of any charity or any work is with the younger generation. None of us here are getting any younger. My husband would like me to retire.”
But in the end, for Felix, the fight is all about the cats. She has five cats of her own, two of which came from the Spay Day shelter.
“They are a great companion. They’re loving, they have emotions and feelings and personalities. They’re like people; everyone is different. They’re unique in their own way. Cats are great. Everybody should have a cat.”