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They only come out at night; the feral cats of the Annex

May 31st, 2011 · 3 Comments

By Beth Macdonell

The Annex Cat Rescue cautions that feral cats are never safe to pet. Beth Macdonell/Gleaner News

Look down one of the Annex’s many laneways and all may appear lifeless. But according to Janine Denney-Lightfoot, 47, a volunteer with the Annex Cat Rescue, living in and around our garages and sheds are hundreds of feral cats.

These wild felines live largely independent lives with no permanent home and no owner, yet depend on people daily to feed and care for them.

“There are so many homeless cats in the city of Toronto,” says Denney-Lightfoot, as she gathers supplies from the trunk of her car and prepares to take the Gleaner along her route near Christie Station. Every night, she follows the same path stopping at specific locations where the ACR knows feral cats are living.

“Most people are unaware the feral cats are even there,” she said. “You don’t see them because you don’t look for them … but go through laneways late at night, you start to see them. They come out largely after dark, when it’s very quiet.”

Along the route, Denney-Lightfoot stops at a dozen locations to fill bowls of water and leave food for cats. Some cats look on and wait for us to step back, others rush over immediately.

“It’s a very hard life for them,” she said. If no one were to feed the cats, “they would probably find another food source eventually, but would be extremely hungry and might die.”

Because the local feral cats were either born outside or lived most of their lives outside, Denney-Lightfoot said it’s unlikely they can ever be domesticated. It’s why the cats need to be fed and their populations monitored. She said even if feral cats are taken in by an animal shelter or adoption agency, no one will want them because of their un-nurtured tendencies. “They don’t know anything about people being kind to them, they are afraid of them, just like a wild animal would be because they’ve never been socialized, touched, or handled.”

Beyond food and water, Denney-Lightfoot said she would like to provide shelters for the ferals, but since most of the cats living along the route live in laneways or on public property she’s unable to.

A volunteer with the ACR since the organization’s inception in 1997, Denney-Lightfoot said she got involved soon after she started feeding some feral cats on her own near her home. “One day there was an ad in The Annex Gleaner that was looking to start a cat rescue group in the Annex, so I phoned,” she said. Today, she manages three routes in Toronto’s west-end and has four cats of her own. By day she works in management at a law firm and is a mother to a 7-year-old son.

Beyond making sure identified feral colonies are fed and have water to drink, volunteers also trap cats that are injured or sick. Once caught, they are rehabilitated in volunteer-run foster care homes, before being released back on the streets. One of the most important roles the organization plays is trapping cats and having them spayed and neutered so populations don’t continue to breed.

As we continue along the route and Denney-Lightfoot talks about the various feeding stations, it’s apparent she knows almost all the cats she feeds. She knows which cats have been pregnant, when they were born, if they’ve been spayed or neutered, even their individual personalities. Some of the cats she talks about are extremely wild and very timid, some more friendly, but she emphasizes that they are never okay to pet.

“There are cats that we have fed in the ACR for 12 years and still can’t touch. We can get really close to them, they know the sounds of our voices, they know the sounds of our cars. They’ll come running out as soon as you call them, put the food down, but you have to stay a bit of a distance back.”

One time she said she tried to pet a feral she had been feeding for years, but it “just jumped a mile gave me a look that said, I had crossed a boundary.” Another time she accidentally cornered a cat that reacted by hissing. “It’s really hands off.”

Despite not being able to touch the cats, Denney-Lightfoot said she truly enjoys her nighttime work with ferals. “It’s my me time, it’s away from the hustle bustle,” she said. “Ferals are almost wildlife, they are a part of nature. It’s a little bit of time out in the city. It’s some quiet time with the animals, and I find that very relaxing and very rewarding.”

She says one of the most difficult parts of the job is worrying that comes with it. “One of the challenges with the feral cats is that they just disappear, and then you never know what happened to them,” she said. “You don’t think you would, but you do, you do get attached to them.”

Attached as she is, Denney-Lightfoot needs help feeding the cats every night, year-round. The organization is always looking volunteers to help feeders along various routes; a job she says is very worthwhile and satisfying.

“After all these years of feeding I find it really rewarding to have a hungry cat and watch it have a good meal,” she said. “It still makes me smile.”

If you would like to get involved with the Annex Cat Rescue or know of a feral cat or colony in need of help please visit their website at

Tags: People · General

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 noreen // Jun 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I luv animals but am inclined to get attached and suffer in agony after – hopefully one day I will be able to volunteer my services to these and most any animal. Have 2 felines of my own – one being of a feral mother and not easy to always handle – so I know of what speaks.

  • 2 Ovid // Jun 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Bad idea. She leaves food out so racoons, domesticated pet cats, pigeons, and rats have a feast! She is misguided, wrecking the diets of family pets, leaving a mess of soggy food on the sidewalks. The lady is “not all there”. I wish she would STOP.

  • 3 Maxtor // Jun 28, 2012 at 1:53 am

    Ovid: Your understanding of the ecosystem is completely wrong, to put it mildly. Perhaps you might consider educating yourself just a little about a topic before casting personal aspersions upon those who are trying to better our community?