Cats always seem to find Heather Deveaux, founder of the Cats of Paint Lake rescue, and when they do, they also find a new lease on life.
The Dorset-based rescue, which specializes in taking on feral felines, has helped over 100 cats since it was officially incorporated in January. They’re currently caring for 47 cats, the largest number they’ve ever had at once, so they’re looking to grow their team of volunteers so they can help as many cats as possible. Though the rescue is just approaching their first anniversary, Deveaux and her partner Kyal Smith have been helping cats for years. It all started when a feral cat showed up at Smith’s cabin nearly four years ago.
“She was just this little fur ball under the deck with little green eyes peeking at us,” Deveaux said. “Eventually, she came and sat there and he put some ham down and it went from there.”
They named their new visitor MamaCat and after a year or two, she started bringing them her kittens. Eventually they discovered that one of her kittens was pregnant, leaving them with two mother cats and eight kittens roaming around the property. That’s when they decided they would need to take action to help the colony of cats.
“I started taking them in to get spayed or neutered and realized that’s not really going to be long term tenable [or] sustainable,” Deveaux said. “We set up a GoFundMe page and thought, ‘Let’s just see, maybe we can get a little help from people around here because there’s lots of strays, lots of ferals.’ And to our great surprise and delight, people started contributing.”
Between the community contributions and professional changes caused by COVID, their small project snowballed and became a full-blown rescue. Residents and local businesses started calling the rescue to report cat sightings, so they set out to trap as many cats as possible before winter weather set in. Soon after, the Cats of Paint Lake rescue was born.
Taking cats from feral to friendly
The mission at the Cats of Paint Lake is to rescue cats living outside and help rehabilitate them, bringing the animals from feral to family pet. The rescue takes on difficult cases from other rescues in addition to accepting the occasional surrender, but their main goal is helping ferals and strays.
“We kind of focus on the difficult cases,” Deveaux said. “The ones that are challenging, the ones that are a little wild, the ones that have had a sad story, but mostly we do focus, especially this time of year, on the strays and the ferals because they’re the ones that are out there and they’re at imminent risk of getting killed.”
Feral cats are subject to a variety of risks while outdoors, including diseases, predators, changing weather and starvation over the winter. A lot of rescues and even vets won’t deal with feral cats, Deveaux said, so she works with the Humane Society in North Bay to rehabilitate cats from Muskoka, Haliburton County and beyond.
They’ve helped cats from Orillia, Barrie and Toronto and their team has connected with people from all over the province and even outside of Canada to provide advice on trapping and rehabbing feral cats. Once cats enter the rescue, they’re met with warmth, safety and comfort, which helps them start on the way to becoming house cats. Their team of volunteers is a big part of that, Deveaux said, and they love the work they do.
“They realize that this problem of strays and ferals out there, it’s a human created problem,” she said. “The cats didn’t ask to be lost, left outside, dumped, abandoned or born out there for that matter, and so it’s going to take all of us to fix it. I have people who come in here who are just amazing with them and every cat responds to different people, so it’s great to have more and more of them on board.”
Seeking volunteers of all ages and abilities
They have about eight to 10 regulars as well as a few dozen seasonal and sporadic volunteers, so they’re hoping to get more people to cover daily shifts at the rescue. The facility is a low-odour, temperature-controlled environment with heated floors, air purifiers and other features to keep both people and pets comfortable and safe, so some of the most common tasks are basic cleaning and feeding duties.
“It’s not just cleaning and feeding, it’s also interacting with those animals and getting to know them, and that’s part of the socialization process,” Deveaux said. “When you’re opening their space and going in there, this takes people who are not intimidated, first of all, and really love the cats.”
In addition to shifts at the rescue, they could also use people who can help out with driving, trapping, social media, photography and video, fundraising, and more. Some of their volunteers even sew cat toys, beds and other items. The rescue has had volunteers as young as five and as old as 91, so all ages and abilities are welcome.
For locals with extra space in their home, becoming a foster is a great way to support the rescue’s efforts. Due to the size of their facility, the rescue is limited by the number of foster families they have available. The more fosters they have, the more cats they can help, Deveaux said, but it’s important that they manage the numbers and ensure they have enough resources to care for each intake.
“I call it finishing school, so more often than not, we’ve done a lot of the heavy lifting on getting the ferals down from wild animal into the status of ‘I’m almost a [house] cat,’” she said. “Once you get them to that point, they need to learn how to live in a house and we can emulate that as far as we want, but we’re not going to ever really be able to let them learn how to live in a house unless they go live in a house.”
A little goes a long way
For people without time to volunteer, there are still many ways to help. With the exception of a small grant from the Haliburton County Development Corporation, the rescue runs entirely on donations. Monetary contributions as well as donations like garbage bags, old newspapers, food dishes and disinfecting wipes make a big difference for their day-to-day operations.
Even a comment or share on their growing social media pages can help. They have accounts on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, but their most popular platform is TikTok with over 20,000 followers and nearly 275,000 likes. Their online following helps build awareness and bring in donations, and they’re hopeful that their growing presence could lead to sponsorships or partnerships with pet brands.
The work at the rescue can’t happen without volunteers, donors and other supporters, so no matter what kind of help locals can provide to the Cats of Paint Lake, every bit goes toward bringing cats from feral to friendly.
“When you see the transformation, they don’t all have to just go outside,” Deveaux said. “They are wild things by virtue of the necessity of survival, but they are, at heart, just cats and sometimes you can help them find that again.”
To volunteer with the Cats of Paint Lake, or to make a donation, visit the rescue’s website.