York professor featured in TVO documentary about unique feral cat issue

Cornwall has a booming population of stray cats that require assistance. (Courtesy of Virginia Kelly)

On November 24, TVO premiered the documentary Running Wild: The Cats of Cornwall. The 70-minute film delves into Cornwall, a small city in Ontario with a large feral cat population. It explores the ecological effects of this crisis, featuring an appearance from biologist and York professor Dr. Bridget Stutchbury. 

“It was great to be able to feature some really well-known scientists here in Ontario, including Dr. Bridget Stutchbury,” says Aaron Hancox, the film’s writer and director. “At Markham Street films, we were really interested in making a film about the lesser-known side of stray cats, which is really the ecological impact — the fact that cats are an invasive species.”

“Cats are cute, but they’re also causing a lot of problems when they’re outside,” Hancox adds.

The ecological impact of the feral cat crisis is linked to the death of wild birds, which Dr. Stutchbury is an expert in.

“Lots of papers have been published estimating the total number of bird fatalities from most pet cats and unowned cats,” says Dr. Stutchbury. “Certainly these studies show unowned cats that don’t go home every night and get fed by their owners kill more birds naturally.”

Dr. Bridget Stutchbury with several wild birds. (Courtesy of Virginia Kelly)

According to Dr. Stutchbury, feral cats have a massive impact on Canadian bird populations, with a staggering number of deaths:

“There are a lot of behavioural studies that can be really informative for trying to understand cat behaviour and how that differs between owned cats and unowned cats,” she says. “I’m trying to take these studies and scientifically scale them up to a national level, to sort of capture what’s happening across Canada or across the U.S. In Canada alone they estimate 200 million to 300 million birds are killed a year by cats.”

Each individual feral cat is just “one piece of a big problem” for wild bird populations, says Dr. Stutchbury.

The film follows citizen activists who are dedicated to solving this problem, including concerned Cornwall residents Mellissa Alepins and Mary Jane Proulx. These cat rescuers trap, neuter, and release (TNR) cats on their own, while also urging the city to take action. 

“Working with our main characters was amazing,” says Hancox. “Mellissa and Mary Jane are such compassionate people and they’re so inspiring to be around, to see how much they genuinely love the animals and are doing this work just out of the goodness of their own hearts.”

Hancox believes the city of Cornwall was ideal for a film that explores the intersection of many issues:

“We had this interest in making a film about cats and other invasive species, and we had an interest in spotlighting the human work behind the scenes saving cats from a bad fate,” he says. “All of this came together when I discovered the story of Cornwall, which is really amazing that we had this real-life example of all these issues happening in one place, in basically our backyard.”

Hancox describes how filming in Cornwall came with many surprises: “Every time we went to Cornwall, something amazing would happen.”

Hancox adds: “The very first time we filmed in Cornwall, Mellissa seemed a little bit disappointed for me, saying, ‘well, I don’t have any kittens under my care right now.’ And within a few hours, she got a phone call from somebody at the local dump saying, ‘hey, I have a box of kittens that we just discovered, can you rush over here and save these kittens?’”

The rescue of these tiny kittens from the dump actually turns out to be one of the film’s opening scenes.

Aaron Hancox and his rescue cat, Beau. (Courtesy of Virgina Kelly)

Previously, Hancox co-directed the 2018 documentary, Catwalk: Tales From the Cat Show Circuit, which explores Canada’s fancy cat world and the realm of competitive cat shows. Running Wild sticks to the feline theme, but in the opposite direction. 

Catwalk and Running Wild are so different in terms of how they were made and the feel of the film. They’re kind of opposites in a certain way, but I’m really proud of both of them,” he says.

The film sheds light on rescue cats, who may be less fancy but are no less deserving of love.

“There are so many cats that need help out there. I’ve been really moved by my own journey with rescuing cats and loving and caring for these animals, and meeting the people who fostered both of my cats,” says Hancox. “I felt very strongly that the world needed to know more about the people involved with helping rescue cats.”

Running Wild: The Cats of Cornwall is available for streaming on TVO.org 24/7. It will also air on Saturday, November 28 at 9 p.m. EST and Sunday, Nov 29 at 10:30 p.m. EST.

About the Author

By Sakeina Syed

Former Editor

Sakeina is in her third year at York University studying public administration and creative writing. She is committed to learning and writing about critical issues and uplifting marginalized stories. Outside of Excalibur, you'll most likely find her reading a book or collecting funny cat videos.

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Adri Moller

This is rubbish. Human behaviour by far has the biggest impact.

Bryan

This feral cat problem is in addition to our behaviour.