Local volunteer’s retirement a “tremendous loss” for animal welfare community

The future of The Forgotten Ferals, one of the city’s leading feral feline rescues, is unclear after founder Donna Cowie-Ducharme announced she will be stepping away from the organization. Photo via Donna Cowie-Ducharme.

After running The Forgotten Ferals (TFF) feline welfare program for the past eight years, Kingston’s Donna Cowie-Ducharme has announced she will be stepping away from the organization. “This has to be one of the most difficult posts I will ever make as my heart is broken in so many ways with having to admit to myself for my own health and mental state, that this year will be my last year of Rescue with TFF,” Cowie-Ducharme said in a Facebook post last week. “It is a bitter-sweet moment, excited to have more quality time with my family but very painful knowing so many sweet ferals will be left out in the cold.” 

The local animal welfare advocate started TFF after noticing an increase in the number of feral cats near her workplace in Napanee. “I managed to get help, trapped and returned them as they were spayed/neutered. Kittens were socialized and adopted. It was then I realized just how many sickly, hungry ferals frequented local businesses and my journey on a mission to help them slowly evolved into The Forgotten Ferals,” Cowie-Ducharme said in an email to Kingstonist.

After launching TFF, Cowie-Ducharme began rescuing feral cats, working to provide spay and neutering services while also securing them safe forever homes. However, things were not always easy for the volunteer, who had to undertake many challenges singlehandedly and cover a significant amount of the costs on her own. “It was very difficult financially having to buy food [with] every paycheck, maintaining a food supply to keep the cats in a healthy state. I remember praying for some miracle and was ever so grateful when the office staff gathered together presenting me with bags of food whenever they could.”

Cowie-Ducharme continued, “I built winter shelters which kept [the cats] from freezing during extreme frigid winter temperatures. Every night I worried about those poor cats that had nowhere else to go and [were] wanted by no one.”

While Cowie-Ducharme was on her own throughout the early years, she noted that the program was able to attract volunteers and partners, as the organization grew and expanded its services. “Over the years volunteers have come and gone, but [it’s] basically a handful of [people] who keep the organization running smoothly. TFF has foster homes, someone to pick up weekly garbage, weekly laundry, and food donations.” 

Cowie-Ducharme also noted that the popularity of her organization on social media has allowed her to spread her message and raise awareness about the needs of Kingston’s feral feline population. “We also have approximately 2,600 followers on Facebook. Our website allows people to view who we have in care, who is up for adoption and the… online paperwork required… to adopt or request assistance.”

The Forgotten Ferals has also benefited from the support of businesses and partner organizations within Kingston, such as Pet Valu and other pet stores, which have donated food and other products and promoted the organization. “Pet Valu has been our rock providing a space for our adoption events, and housing our available cats in their store enclosures. Fundraisers through the store are shared with TFF… and [are] so greatly appreciated.”

“We are fortunate that the City of Kingston has included TFF on their [Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return] (TNVR) list, making funding available for neutering [and select vaccines]… This is a shared resource with other rescues, [offered on a] first come first serve basis [to] a max of $25,000 per year.” However, while the City provides funding for cats rescued within the Kingston region, Cowie-Ducharme noted that this does not apply to many of the felines within her care: “Most of our cats and kittens are rescued from areas outside the Kingston region where they have no supports.” 

For eight years, Cowie-Ducharme has undertaken many of the responsibilities in running a large rescue operation, while also working a full-time job, something that has “taken its toll,” she acknowledged. “So many daily requests with very little downtime. This requires constant monitoring of sick cats and kittens, emails, voicemails, foster enquiring, and all volunteer enquiries. The constant cleaning of my own personal home space and trying to find room to store the necessary equipment to run the rescue — with no funding available to have the rescue run from another location other than my home and the homes of fosters.” 

In her Facebook post from last week, Cowie-Durchame noted that the past year has been challenging, as she explained her decision to step away. “The last year has been [an] ongoing struggle managing and living in the rescue world and it has come to that time in my life where I must let go and be thankful for the many years my dreams played out with support from each and every one of you.” 

After spending many years as one of the city’s most dedicated feline rescue volunteers, Cowie-Ducharme reflected on some of the difficulties she has encountered throughout her time running TFF. “The most frustrating issue I have is that people are ignorant [about] the pain and suffering that these cats go through…The refusal of those individuals who feel it not necessary to spay or neuter, those who continue to breed knowing rescues are having to close their doors due to high intake.” 

One of TFF’s main goals has always been the overall reduction of the feral feline population, which can be partially achieved through TNVR assistance. However, Cowie-Ducharme argued that these efforts would be best supported by stronger regulations from various governments. “The only way this problem can be resolved is [by handing out] stiff penalties to those caught dumping cats and [by implementing] a bylaw by which you cannot own or sell a cat without it being spayed or neutered or an appointment pre-booked to do so. It really is that simple…”

Following last week’s announcement, many people took to social media to express appreciation and thanks to Cowie-Ducharme and TFF. Local animal welfare advocate and expert Jennifer Allan called Cowie-Ducharme’s departure from the program a “tremendous loss” for the community. “It will definitely create a gap because many of these organizations are at their limits… There’s only so many hours in a day that people can devote to the kind of work that this takes.” 

In the past, Allan has partnered with and supported TFF. Earlier this year, the former Urban Paws owner provided TFF and another organization with $6,500 worth of cat food. Allan said groups like Cowie-Duncharme’s provide vital services to an “underserved area” within the city. “These organizations [play] a tremendously important role that I think is often undervalued, or people just aren’t aware of the significance of the problem… and just how much help is needed.” 

Earlier this year, Cowie-Ducharme was presented with the First Capital Honourable Achievement Award in recognition of her “contributions to the Kingston community.” As the volunteer prepares to step away from the work, she noted that TFF’s future is uncertain, with no dedicated volunteers set to replace her. “I do not have any individual(s) who have shown interest in continuing forward with The Forgotten Ferals.” However, before officially retiring, Cowie-Ducharme mentioned that she will first find homes for the “approximately 85 cats” TFF currently has in its care. 

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