A pair of animal rescue advocates are warning of a disturbing pattern in Nova Scotia: cats going missing from their homes, ostensibly “rescued” from their owners, and turning up in different homes with owners seemingly oblivious to their new pet’s past.
At the heart of these disappearances is an organization known as the Homeless Animal Rescue Team (HART) based in Aylesford, N.S., and its founder, Laurie Wheeler. Wheeler was identified by 10 owners who spoke to CBC News as the person behind their cat’s disappearance.
Animal welfare advocates Marie Leloup and Debbie Saltzman have been tracking cat disappearances dating back to 2006. The two former associates of Wheeler allege she has been rehoming cats she finds outside — or lures to her home with food — without regard for their owners.
Neither the RCMP nor the SPCA have taken action against HART or Wheeler, citing a lack of evidence or authority.
‘Some call it stealing’
Posts by Wheeler on HART’s public Facebook page indicate her motives are to save cats from neglect and being outside, but her actions have left families searching for their pets, sometimes for years.
“Some call it stealing cats, call it what you want,” she wrote on Feb 16. “But if you can’t look after them and I can do something about it I will. That’s a promise.”
When contacted for this story, Wheeler said her organization is “very successful at saving lives,” but declined to comment further.
A pattern emerges
Leloup provided CBC News with a list of more than 10 incidents of cats being taken by HART and adopted into new homes allegedly without the knowledge or consent of their existing owners.
In addition to previously working with Wheeler, Leloup has extensive experience with animal rescue organizations.
Leloup said when a cat is found, standard procedure for most animal rescue organizations is to put up a post on social media in search of the owner. If they can’t be located, or the animal has been neglected, the group contacts the SPCA.
Jo-Anne Landsburg, chief investigator for the Nova Scotia SPCA, said only its officers or police — not private citizens — are allowed to seize animals under provisions of the Animal Protection Act.
But Leloup said that’s not how HART operates, and she pointed to the 2014 disappearance of a cat named Mr. Wiggles as an example.
What happened to Mr. Wiggles?
Saltzman had helped find the kitten — known for his distinctive “wobble” — a new home with a family in Oxford, N.S., through the Kings County SPCA.
Not long afterward, Saltzman said she was alerted to a photo on Wheeler’s Facebook page.
“I went, ‘Oh my god, that’s Mr. Wiggles,'” said Saltzman, who worked with Wheeler and HART at that time.
Wheeler’s post claimed she found the cat malnourished and frozen on her porch. When the SPCA confirmed to Saltzman it was Mr. Wiggles, they contacted Wheeler to tell her the cat was missed by his family.
Within hours the online photos were taken down, and Saltzman said Wheeler told the SPCA and the RCMP that the cat escaped.
Wheeler admitted she took the cat in a post in a private Facebook group, images of which were given to CBC.
Mr. Wiggles was never recovered.
Missing cat spotted in rescuer’s home
When Georgina Bailey’s cat went missing in Aylesford in 2013, she approached HART, but the group denied involvement.
Bailey said she even saw her cat at Wheeler’s house. But when she confronted Wheeler in person, asking for her cat to be returned, Bailey said she was told lots of cats look the same and was sent away.
A year later, Bailey said she received a call from a vet in Ontario who had identified the cat by his microchip. She was told that a family had adopted the cat from a shelter in Aylesford.
“I went to the SPCA and they told me there was nothing that they could do, and the RCMP told me that they had nothing to do with animal disputes,” said Bailey.
SPCA: Call us or police
The SPCA said it has no affiliation with Wheeler or HART.
If someone witnesses an animal being abused or neglected, Landsburg said they should contact the SPCA or local police and not take matters into their owns hands. She said the society doesn’t get involved in issues of ownership or theft, and refers such cases back to the RCMP.
RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Jennifer Clarke could not speak to the specifics of either incident.
HART defaulted as a business, due to non-payment of registration fees in October 2018, but the group continues to conduct fundraising efforts on Facebook for its cause.