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From the streets to the sheets: Q&A with Canberra Street Cat Alliance

The Canberra Street Cat Alliance (CSCA) was founded in 2014. The mission of the volunteer-run organisation is to humanely reduce the number of homeless cats living in Canberra and surrounding regions.

Canberra has street cats that reside in suburban or industrial areas. These felines are either unowned or have been abandoned by their previous owners. Although they do not have a home, they still rely on humans for their food. However, when street cat colonies are not managed by humans, the cats can becoming sick and often die.

The CSCA runs a foster program called ‘Streets to Sheets’ to help get cats off the streets and into loving, safe homes.

I spoke with CSCA co-founder and treasurer, Anna Raimdondous, to learn more about their foster program, and the work they do with street colonies.

A woman holding a large white cat.
(Photo by Hannah Flynn)
Q: Could you tell me about CSCA and what it does?

A: The aim of Canberra Street Cat Alliance is to reduce the number of street cats and homeless cats living in Canberra and to improve their welfare. We do this through our two main programs. One is the desexing of community cats which are living in managed colonies – primarily in industrial areas like Fyshwick, Hume and Mitchell. The other program is our streets to sheets foster program, which is where we take cats and kittens off the streets. Because they’re unsocialised to humans, we spend a lot of time socialising them to help get them ready to be adoptable.

We have about 50 foster carers at any one point. We currently have 134 cats in care all across different homes in Canberra. When the cats first come in, we assess them, look at their temperament, their age and then we try to match them to different foster homes.

A corner of a cat's face peeking out from behind a shelf.
Shy cat currently in foster care (Photo by Hannah Flynn)

If it’s a very young kitten, even if it’s very scared, we know it will turn around quickly. So we can put it in a busy foster home, one with kids and dogs and know it will turn out quite well. If we’ve got a teenage or adult cat, it will probably need a more quiet foster home. 

The cats can be in care anywhere between a month or two for the young ones and for the adults, it can take a year or more for them to become adoptable. The foster carers spend a lot of time getting the cats used to living inside and to humans. Learning that humans are a source of pats, food and good things, and to trust them. And to give them the confidence to adapt in a new home.

A tortoiseshell cat sitting in front of a window.
Anna’s rescue cat, Ramy (Photo by Hannah Flynn)

Not all the cats turn around to be adoptable in their own right. We see it as a continuum. 

If the foster cats absolutely don’t turn around, we can look at barn options for them.

We always think there is a home for every cat, it’s just that some will take longer to find. It’s about working out what the cat’s needs are, and where we can place them.

A big white cat standing on his back legs to eat a treat.
Anna’s rescue cat, Nanuk, receiving the royal treatment (Photo by Hannah Flynn)
Q: What inspired you to start this organisation?

A: I grew up in Greece and there’s a lot of street cats there. The way of living with them is very different there. There’s not that much animosity towards them. There’s a lot of group desexing of the cats that live there.

That was how I knew to deal with stray cats. Then I came to Canberra and I discovered some street cats living in Woden with my friend. We started looking into it more and realised there were no options for the street cats. There was no one looking after them. The only thing that was happening at the time was the ad-hoc trapping, some people would trap cats and take them to the RSPCA. I thought to myself ‘Well that needs to change’. So my friend and I started the CSCA. We began by just desexing of some of the street cats and it grew from there.

4 cats in a cement driveway with a cage prepped to trap them.
A cat trap (photo by Anna Raimdondous)
Q: What are some challenges you face while reducing the street cats?

A: We are completely self funded, we’re a 100% volunteer-run organisation. We’re always having challenges with our resources, both financial and people resources. We’re all volunteers so getting enough foster carers or volunteers for transport can be difficult. Vet costs are increasing so that’s been a big issue for us. 

Last financial year our vet cost was $192,000. Our adoption fees go nowhere near covering that. We have to do a lot of fundraising and ask for donations to be able to keep our heads above the water. 

Also the public perception of street cats. There’s a lot of misconceptions about them, it’s a space where we get a lot of opposition and education is very important.

A ginger and white cat sitting behind a wire fence with food and milk sitting in front of it.
Feeding a street cat (photo by Anna Raimdondous)
Q: Have you seen a significant improvement as a result of the CSCAs work?

A: There’s colonies that we’ve worked with where we can actually see the difference. There’s been colonies where there were 30 cats and every year people would call us up to say there’s more kittens. We were working really hard to take all the kittens away and desex all the adults. As a result we then see years and years of having no kittens be born.

That’s when we can be like ‘Wow it has actually worked’. We’ve seen this across many colonies.

A group of cats sitting on a driveway with numerous food trays they are eating from.
Taking care of a colony (photo by Anna Raimdondous)
Q: Do you know how many cats have come through the CSCAs foster program?

A: We do about 400-500 cats a year. Our updated records management system was installed in 2019. So since 1st January 2019, until today we have taken in 1534 cats.

A black cat with big green eyes sitting on a shelf.
Star, a current cat in foster care (Photo by Hannah Flynn)
Q: There’s obviously a very big difference between managed and unmanaged street cat colonies, could you explain the importance of this difference?

A: Unmanaged colonies are colonies where there is no one really looking after them. There might be a couple of people feeding them, but no one is looking out for the cat’s welfare. The cats might be directly or indirectly reliant on people, but they’re mostly left to their own devices. You see some very sick cats, there’s just no one looking after them.

Managed colonies are ones where we have come in and desexed them. They’re microchipped, vaccinated and their welfare and health is looked after for the entirety of their lives. There’s a big difference in the happiness of the cats. 

We’ve had examples of a cat in a managed colony bitten by a snake. We take it into the vet, gave it the antivenom and a few hours later the cat is fine and can go back to its colony. 

We always look out for them as if they are our own pet cats. There are caretakers who look after and feed the cats daily, even on the weekends. These caretakers in the managed colonies will let us know if there are any issues and that’s really important.

A ginger cat curled up in a blue cat bed.
Catrick, recently adopted (Photo by Hannah Flynn)
Q: What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced throughout this journey?

A: I think my own cat Nanuk, he’s very dear to my heart. He came in as a typical street cat, very beaten up, very scared of humans and just not a happy boy. He was just so scared.

A white cat in a cage with an injured head.
Nanuk before (photo by Anna Raimdondous)

We slowly started working with him and he just turned into such a beautiful boy. I think he’s one of my happiest, most proud memories. I mean there’s countless, countless examples like Nanuk. It is absolutely incredibly rewarding work, being able to help these cats and turn their lives around.

A big white cat with blue eyes being pat on the head.
Nanuk now (Photo by Hannah Flynn)
Q: What kind of support do you receive from the local community and how could someone get involved?

A: We love the local community, the people who support us are amazing. They donate, they come to our events and they buy stuff when we have different fundraisers. They’re just fantastic. The main support we get is people volunteering, whether that’s for transport or to be foster carers.

There’s different ways you can be involved. Not everyone can foster but maybe you can take a cat from a foster carer’s house to a vet if the carer doesn’t have a car. If you’re good with people, maybe you’d want to volunteer at an event or bake sale. 

Get involved

If you want to volunteer or adopt a cat, visit the Canberra Street Cat Alliance website.