Jane Helie & Tammy Clark: Kind-Hearted Cat Herders
Local Heroes: Jane Helie & Tammy Clark have cared for a feral cat community over the past ten years.
Jane Helie & Tammy Clark: Two of our 2009 Local Heroes
Five days a week, every week, Jane Helie drives to Hillsburgh, a white-knuckled half-hour trip during inclement winter weather. Upon her arrival, the occupants scatter, stealing back tentatively as she performs her duties in a tiny, unheated cabin. Occasionally Buddy rubs against her leg in a gesture of cautious affection. Jane expects nothing more.
For nearly a decade, Jane and Tammy Clark, who takes over on weekends, have cared for a feral cat community. It all started in 2000 when Tammy noticed a cluster of feral cats in a nearby empty lot while she was having her car repaired. She and Jane returned several times to feed them. Realizing this was a tricky situation, Jane said to Tammy, “Now that we’ve started this, we can’t just walk away.”
Cats are sexually mature at six months of age, often producing litters of seven or eight kittens. Do the math: a feral cat community is an unbridled population explosion. The problem often begins when an outdoor house cat does not return home to have her litter or when farm cats wander off to procreate.
“We decided to start a ‘trap, neuter, release’ program,” Jane says.
Marilyn Case, who worked in Hillsburgh, joined their cause, notifying them when a cat was trapped and dropping it off at the local veterinarian. Under Jane’s watchful eye, each female recuperated for five days at her home before returning to the community.
“Early on, a few people complained about the cats. Some were grumbling that they should be killed,” Jane says. “So we attended an Erin Township meeting where Tammy explained about the trap, neuter, release program that would allow the community to survive and let mother nature run its course.” Ear tattoos identify the cats and the population has remained steady at approximately thirty.
A dilapidated van donated by a nearby garage owner became the first sleeping and feeding quarters. Five years ago, Jane received permission to construct an insulated shed on the property. With lumber and a door donated from Toronto, they built the shed, assisted by a local senior. Comfy cat bunk beds with blankets and quilts line the walls and a cupboard houses supplies. The cats are fed daily with de-worming medications and vitamins added as required.
During the seven years it took to complete the catch, neuter and release program, litters continued to be born. Over fifty kittens were trapped and spayed or neutered. Marilyn took on the responsibility of domesticating the kittens before putting them up for adoption.
The trio paid thousands of dollars in vet bills for spaying and neutering as well as fees for medicine and to euthanize those too ill to save. Not to mention the ongoing cost of food. Since Marilyn moved out of the area, Jane and Tammy soldier on alone.
“I sold my motorcycle to pay one very large vet bill,” Jane says. “But I just loved that cat.”
Jane has always been an animal person. She currently has eight cats and dogs of her own – a couple with special needs. Recently she began volunteering at the Upper Credit Humane Society, serving a term on the board of directors.
The feral cats are aging and one day the community will die out. The end will come quietly with no medals or certificates to recognize this long labour of love, time and expense.
“We did this because it was the only humane thing to do,” Jane says.