NEW GLASGOW - It’s Monday, Dec. 10, and 16 degrees below zero when Mike McGrath rolls up to the former Maritime Steel complex at 6:45 a.m.
Excavators have been making short work of the buildings since last January and the whole scene could remind World War 2 history buffs of photos taken of some eastern-front industrial suburb. The frigid weather adds to the impression, and inside the structure it’s even colder.
“Come on you guys, come on.” McGrath’s voice resonates through the hollowed-out foundry. The floor space in the old cleaning facility is roughly the size of a football field. It’s pitch dark, but light from McGrath’s lamp gets reflected back from the different pairs of eyes following him as he walks past old equipment and empty workstations.
For more than 40 cats this has been home, and McGrath’s arrival means breakfast.
McGrath is joined by Lloyd Pentz. Pentz has been here for a long time. For 40-years he worked here, back when this structure was used as a machine shop, and then again later when it was repurposed into a cleaning room where rough steel from the furnace room next door would be brought it to be smoothed and made ready for future buildings and bridges. Pentz painted the steel.
“We sprayed it on, with almost like a torch,” he says, “then we shipped them out on rails.”
Twenty years ago, Pentz started caring for the cats that lived in the factory. There used to be a lot more. Even six years ago there were nearly 100 cats living in the Maritime Steel colony. But, thanks to catch, neuter, release and foster programs for the cats what are less wild, the colony is under control and down to 40.
Pentz knows them all by name.
The floor is made uneven by the small piles of frozen pigeon droppings crunching beneath their boots, and both McGrath and Pentz keep calling out to the building’s unofficial tenants until they reach the very back of the hall.
That’s where they’ve placed the shelters.
Plywood boxes insulated with styrofoam and filled with hay can accommodate up to eight cats at a time. Lifting the lid, you can see the circular indentations where the cats spend the night. There are also coolers, not much bigger than the one McGrath carries and with doors cut into the sides. These, along with another very large Styrofoam box filled with hay, all make up a kind of cat shanty town.
You can see more cats now, but they don’t stay in the light for long. It’s only after McGrath sets the lantern down on a rusted steel drum and starts preparing the meal when you can catch a longer glimpse of them.
“I’m not sure why I do this,” says McGrath. He’s been coming here every morning for the last six years. “I like doing this, and I don’t think there’s any other reason. I’ve always worked long hours, and I like to work. So, getting up at 5:30 is no different now than it was for the last 30 years.”
Normally there would be between 15 and 20 cats queuing up at the bowls, but today it’s only the bravest ones who get to eat first. As he works, a fourth cat jumps onto the table beside McGrath.
“This is a great cat,” he says rubbing it behind the ear. “It’s a great feeling when a cat that is feral will let you pat it and purr it’s heart out.”
A product of humans
The life of a feral cat is precarious, and in contrast to the legal protections afforded to domestic cats, protections for feral cats comes almost entirely from people like McGrath and Pentz.
“They don’t have the same level of requirements as a domestic cat that you have a responsibility for,” said SPCA spokesperson Heather Wooden. “It’s sort of a moral responsibility to do the right thing.”
“Feral cats are a product of humans, so we have an obligation to care for them as best we can.”
Much for the former steel factory has been demolished. Harris Construction and Marinus Verhagen Enterprises Ltd. bought the property in 2015 and the complex is being dismantled piecemeal.
“They’re meeting us more than half-way,” said McGrath about property owners Wayne Harris and Marinus Verhagen. In a post to the Feral Cats of New Glasgow Facebook page, McGrath announced that the owners promised to re-fit the factory’s old reservoir building with flooring and walls.
That’s where the cats and their shelters will need to be relocated.
• Maritime Steel building being demolished
‘What the hell happened here?’
McGrath and Pentz get a shock when they slide open the door on Thursday, Dec. 13.
“What the hell happened here?”
Pentz is peering into the old cleaning room. The back wall at the end of the hall has been taken down, and a large pipe from the ceiling had fallen down on top of one of the plywood shelters. Pentz removed the pipe and lifted the shelter’s lid.
No cats were harmed.
“In all honesty, we probably shouldn’t be here. God knows how sound it is” says McGrath looking up at the ceiling. “Anyway, we’ll deal with it.”
Meeting halfway and making good on a promise
According to Merinus Verhagen, a large overhead crane spanning the width of the building and hanging from the ceiling was sold for salvage. To remove it from the building, the wall had to come down.
Fortunately, work on cat’s new home also began on Dec. 13.
“We have all the houses moved,” said McGrath over the phone later on Dec 13. He and Pentz spent some extra time moving the shelters to a safer spot in the hall. “As soon as they’re ready for us we’ll start to move to the out-building.”
“The cats are tough, they’ll survive. They’ve been through a lot, these cats.”