Winnipeg is best known for its bitter winters, high murder rate and love of Slurpees. What it should be known for is its cats.
With more than 100,000 feral cats roaming the streets, it’s rare to go anywhere without seeing one lurking in a bush or boldly sprawling out on the sidewalk for belly rubs. But they’re not all waiting passively for human intervention to get them what they need. It’s not uncommon for a feline to slip through an open door into a party or take up residence under a front porch where she can easily bolt out to greet homeowners for affection and food.
Some cats have even claimed their own warm places to find food and rest their heads by walking into a space and stubbornly staying until the human occupants see the benefits of a cat’s presence.
A few years ago, Squirrel was homeless and alone, fighting other street cats for her meals. Then she sneaked into Frame Arts Warehouse. In the old building full of art studios and event spaces, Squirrel roamed free, but safe, warm, cuddled, and fed. In exchange for letting her prowl the old building, she dealt with the mouse problem.
“We didn’t have cats in the building, so we got mice,” says David Fatimehin, one of the founders of Frame, which, unfortunately, was shut down in August 2015.
The business called an exterminator and got a surprisingly expensive estimate.
“Instead of paying $5,000, we said, ‘Let’s bring more cats in,’” says Fatimehin.
Squirrel started a trend. Pickles was brought in off the streets shortly after Squirrel. Unlike her, Pickles hunted mice and tried his darnedest to get in on the action downstairs, nosing his way into events and putting on his cutest face to persuade guests to share treats.
The building had as many as four cats at a time, some adopted and others brought off the streets by studio renters.
“I think for artists, they like it. They see them as an inspiration for them,’” says Fatimehin.
They also kept night owls company in the drafty downtown building.
Frame’s acceptance of feline squatters is far from unique in a city run by cats. One such feline named Dos had a cozy apartment down the street when he decided to move into Prairie Sky Books, a new age bookstore in the city’s “hippy” neighborhood. The employees didn’t know he had a home, so they let him stay. He spent his days dozing in the front window and greeting customers at the cash register.
Dos died last August, and the store is now unoccupied by a cat, but it probably won’t be vacant long. In its more than 35 years of operation, employees say, many cats have moved into Prairie Sky, uninvited but welcome.
Cats stay away from the busier streets, so businesses in high traffic areas don’t find many cats walking through their doors. Instead, they actively search for a feline employee who can hunt mice, entertain customers, comfort employees, and act as a mascot of sorts.
Kendrick Quality Printing goes through a lot of cats, and it’s not because they’re not up for the job. Norma Kendrick, whose husband owns the business, says employees sometimes get attached to individual cats and bring them home when they leave.
Stinky is one who seems to be in the retail space for the long run, though. For nine years, she has been hanging out in the front window in her cat tree. She lures people waiting at the bus stop out front and encourages customers to keep bringing in their print jobs. She has even made friends of her own who visit to give her treats and toys, even when they have no need of the print shop’s services.
A cat called Nibbles also has a group of friends who pop into Archangel Fireworks just to visit him.
“He’s our mascot, essentially. It makes it easier if we want to do sales or ads. We just throw a picture of him in there,” says assistant manager Melanie Godin.
Situated on a busy street corner, no cats are likely to wander in to make the business home, but there’s even less of a chance of a feline who fits their employee standards walking in. An Archangel cat has to keep the mice from pooping on desks overnight, but not destroy the joint in his adventures. That’s why they exclusively adopt three-legged cats, who are supposed to have limited mobility.
Nibbles hobbles, but he doesn’t have as much trouble getting around as was expected. He hops on the counter and exposes his belly for customers to rub while they look for something to blow up, then runs off in search of somewhere else to perch.
“He loves the attention,” says Godin.
For his enjoyment, part of the job of whichever human comes in first in the morning is to cuddle Nibbles, who spends the night alone. Part of his job is to keep employees company when they’re stuck at the shop at 3 a.m.
Many other cats in Winnipeg have made themselves at home in businesses, including hair salons, art galleries, and fabric stores. It could seem like almost every locally owned store you go into has a cat. And, according to business owners, no one is complaining about it.