March 18, 2016

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Destination: OTTAWA, ON

On the prowl on Parliament Hill

By KEN BECKER -- Canadian Press

The Catman of Parliament Hill, 83-year-old Rene Chartrand, with one of his charges. Chartrand cares for 28 stray cats who live in shelters he constructed behind the Parliament buildings. (CP PHOTO/Stephen Thorne)

Perched on a precipice above the Ottawa River, within the shadow of the Peace Tower, is the cathouse of Parliament Hill.

The residents come and go at all hours. Visitors drop by often.

Rene Chartrand, 83, is the keeper of the house. He constructed it himself, crafted it with plywood to resemble the nearby Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings.

There are 28 inhabitants. "That's Big Momma over there," says Chartrand, pointing to a fluffy snow-white feline. "She had four babies here, three white ones and one brown one." He chuckles. Chartrand chuckles a lot.

The wizened pensioner is standing inside a fenced enclosure that surrounds his handiwork, an oddity on Canada's most famous tract of real estate, where every centimetre of property belongs to the federal government.

"They don't bother me, don't say nothing to me," Chartrand says of the RCMP and other guardians of the hill.

While the government does not contribute funds -- Chartrand buys food with his own money, plus what donors kick into the kitty -- it celebrates the nature of his creation. "The contrast between these modest shelters and the formality and tradition of the Parliament Buildings is a symbol of compassion, one of the important elements of Canadian society," says a page devoted to the "cat sanctuary" on the government's website.

Legend has it that these cats are descendants of four-legged civil servants once turned loose in halls of power to hunt vermin for their keep.

"They still go into the Parliament Buildings at night to catch the mice," says Chartrand. "At least that's what I heard, anyway."

This cannot be verified. But what's known for sure is that in the late 1970s a woman named Irene Desormeaux started caring for a large number of stray cats that roamed amid the hill's landmark structures and statues. She died in 1987 and Chartrand inherited the job. It's become his passion.

"I love cats," says the retired house painter, who spent most of his life across the river in his native Hull, Que., and has lived in Ottawa for the past 18 years.

This is where he met Desormeaux, who faithfully provided the critters with sustenance. But Chartrand went further. He built them a home and filled it with straw, so the cats can snuggle through frigid Ottawa winters. At least twice a day, every day of the year, he checks his charges and puts out bowls of food, not only store-bought kibble but home-cooked meals.

"These are pieces of fried bologna," says Chartrand, holding up a dish filled with small chunks of sausage. "It's for not only the cats."

Other animals are welcome. A family of raccoons takes its turn most nights. So do groundhogs. Squirrels and birds -- mainly chickadees and pigeons -- scavenge for scraps.

Chartrand also delights in the human visitors who crowd around the fence.

"It's fun to meet the girls and boys and senior citizens," he says with the same chuckle that accompanies nearly every sentence.

On this day, Rick Addy and his two children -- Nicole, 7, and Hayley, 4 -- visiting from Toronto, spend about 20 minutes watching cats arrive and depart.

"They're not interested in the Parliament Buildings," Addy says of his daughters. "But they love this."

The girls ask to stroke the cats. Chartrand shakes his head -- and chuckles.

Later, he reminds a visitor that these cats are wild, not house pets. He confides that all 28, which range in age from six months to 16 years, have been spayed or neutered, and that he refuses to take responsibility for any more.

"Somebody tried to drop one off recently," says Chartrand, who has three cats at home. "But I don't need no more. I got enough."

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