Ben stretches, reluctantly shaking himself awake. Here and there, others are stirring. He knows that once René appears, even the shy ones who sleep and watch from quieter nooks and crannies in the buildings on Parliament Hill, will creep out.
It’s fall in Ottawa and Ben can feel the chill in his bones from the brisk wind blowing in off the river. Soon straw will be added to the wooden shelters to provide a little more protection during the fierce winter months.
The sun is up. The tower bell begins to ring out the hour. Brownie knows that self-important humankind will soon be flooding the walks and hallways of “The Hill,” doing the business of the nation — or so the old cat has heard René remark many a time over the years the cat keeper has been coming to the Sanctuary.
An ear twitches — someone is coming up behind him.
Better move out of the way, it’s probably Missy.
He is the “Boss” cat, but not even Ben messes with Missy. She’s been around forever and has earned respect as well as her personal space in the chair René has set up for her when she chooses to snooze in elegant splendor in the sun.
A familiar figure appears on the walkway between the centre block and the one on the east side. It’s René. He walks slowly as befits an old man. He is laden with bags; white plastic ones that Ben knows always signal breakfast. Missy is ahead of him now, but it is Tigger, the grey-and-white tabby, who gets to the old man first.
Meeee-orning, Mr. C! Are we good this fine day, are we for sure?
René puts his bags down, pausing while he’s close to the ground to give Tigger a good rub under the chin as the tabby stretches up a pant leg to meet the old man partway.
“Real good, Tig, thank you kindly. And you are looking pretty well yourself.”
By this time, the sanctuary cats are all aware that breakfast has arrived. Apart from the shy ones who will take second sitting, the majority of the twenty-eight current residents are making their way out of the shelters to greet their patron. Later in the day when the tourists arrive, some of the bolder ones will meet and greet the many visitors who, having toured the stuffy halls of power, want to see what keeps those halls from being chewed to bits by rodents.
René will tell them the story of the cats of Parliament Hill. Since back in the middle of the 19th century, the cats have controlled the incursions of mice which once overran the Parliament buildings. Those early felines did their job too well, and eventually there weren’t enough mice to feed the cat colony. Life took on a somber hue for the cats on “The Hill” until Irene Desormeaux decided that the faithful servants of the Prime Minister’s Office deserved a little social security. On her deathbed, in 1987, she begged her friend René Chartrand to take her place as the self-appointed keeper of the cats of Parliament Hill.
“Mr. C” comes to “The Hill” every day, crossing the city on a bus to look after his charges. He spends the day enjoying their company and talking to the tourists. He buys cat food with his own pension money with help from donations from visitors and cat lovers in the community. A local animal hospital looks after health care for the inhabitants.
Ben and Missy have retired to wash up after breakfast, but a black cat named “Midnight,” lingers as René feeds the squirrels, who are also regulars at the Sanctuary. Midnight is the old man’s adoring shadow.
No tax money supports the cats, but the Canadian government recognizes René’s work on their official website:
Tucked away in the trees that border the rear of Parliament Hill is a small community of stray cats … a volunteer ensures that the shelters used by the cats are maintained and that the animals are fed every day.*
And from the breezes wafting between the buildings on “The Hill,” you’ll swear you can still hear:
“Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been??I've been to London to visit the Queen.?Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there??I frightened a little mouse under her chair.”**
* Government of Canada — Explore The Hill — 2003
** Old English Nursery Rhyme
Note: the people are real; the names of the cats have been changed to protect their anonymity.
The opinions expressed by authors may not necessarily reflect the opinion of FaithWriters.com.
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