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Silicon Alleys - Gary Singh

Silicon Alleys

Cat People

By Gary Singh

RECENTLY I learned that the Cat Lady of San Jose, Sadie Malone, sadly has passed away. She was the hero who for 16 years cared for several wild cats out in the ivy trenches between the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts and the Guadalupe River. She went out of her way to make sure these cats were always provided for, and out of pure kindheartedness, people would regularly donate money for her cause. You could just feel the overflowing compassion involved with such an effort. That Malone died the day after Christmas made the situation even more poignant.

While I'm not sure who will take Malone's place, I feel it is my duty to at least offer at some encouragement for those following in her footsteps. And for whatever reason, each time I go on a trip to Canada, the proverbial Carl Gustav Jung School of Synchronicities in the Sky inspires me to new heights. Last March I surfaced in Ottawa, Ontario—the capital of that country—for some extracurricular business and discovered the remarkable, compassionate story behind the Cat Man of Parliament Hill, a one Mr. René Chartrand.

First, some background: If you actually stand and overlook the Ottawa River behind Parliament Hill, a tourist placard says the city began as a "ramshackle lumber town in the middle of nowhere." Which is true. When Queen Victoria named a then-unknown place as the Canadian capital in 1857, there were grumblings in Montreal, Toronto and Kingston, Ontario—all of which once vied for the title.

Parliament Hill itself consists of three buildings: the West Block, the Centre Block and the East Block. Inside the Centre Block, one finds fossils indistinctly buried within the limestone walls and noticeable dips in the marble steps, where politicians have marched up and down for more than a century.

However, out in the parklike area behind the Centre Block, not too far from the Peace Tower, one finds the Cat Sanctuary, a few homemade wooden structures housing about 20 felines just as famous as any of the politicians inside Parliament. For decades, dozens and dozens of feral cats have found temporary homes in these structures, which were built as facetious mockeries of the Parliament Buildings themselves. René Chartrand, known nationwide as the Cat Man of the Hill, arrives every day at an undisclosed time to feed the cats, all of whom are spayed, neutered and/or inoculated. The Canadian government isn't allowed to spend official funds for his cause, but it would never consider booting him off the property, even though the land is federally owned. Chartrand, who in 1987 took over from the original cat keeper, Irene Desormeaux, built the structures himself and solicits donations from the public. Whenever tourists and natives visit the Parliament buildings, they usually stop by the Cat Sanctuary as well, often leaving pocket change for the cause. About $6,000 is raised annually.

The folks in Parliament cite the phenomenon as a reigning symbol of Canadian compassion, and an entire page devoted to Chartrand exists on the Parliament's website. He also recently won the Humane Society of Canada's Heroes for Animals award.

Of course, the urban legends run rampant. Since the cats do apparently sneak into the Parliament buildings to chase mice, people say they're actually descended from domesticated felines who were owned by the government for exactly that reason. Also, people on the streets and in the pubs of Ottawa will constantly tell you things like "The rats are in Parliament and the cats are the ones freezing outside."

So, taking inspiration from our compassionate neighbors to the north yet again, I will suggest two solutions: Either build a cat sanctuary outside the Center for Performing Arts—one that mocks the architecture of the place—or move them to a new facility near City Hall on Santa Clara Street. Give 'em their own 18-story miniature monument. And let them chase the rats outta the place.

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