OTTAWA - A decades-old cat sanctuary nestled behind Canada's Parliament buildings is heading towards a quiet end as its feline population slowly shrinks.

The sanctuary — a hold-over from the days when cats worked as mousers on Parliament Hill — was once home to as many as 30 strays, but spaying and neutering has reduced their ranks to just four today.

"There were kittens born here, the last ones probably 10 to 15 years ago," said Brian Caines, a sanctuary volunteer and former public servant.

"So now, we're down to four."

In 1955, more modern, chemical-based rodent control methods put the cats out of work, but they never left the hill. Volunteers like Irene Desormeaux, who died in 1987, took it upon themselves to take care of the animals.

In the 1980s, Rene Chartrand became known as "the cat man" after taking over for Desormeaux, building an elaborate wooden shelter for the animals and adopting the role as their full-time volunteer caregiver.

Chartrand cared for the cats without government help, relying entirely on public donations, until retiring in November 2008. He does not run the shelter any longer due to health reasons.

The structures have since been updated and replaced with newer ones to provide the cats shelter and some warmth from Ottawa's bitter winters.

Caines said he got involved with the sanctuary when he worked for the Privy Council in the 1990s. The eventual decline of the cat population is a good thing, he said, since Parliament Hill isn't really the best place for them.

"People ask why we don't get cats and drop them off here, to replenish. I know that any animal rights group would certainly take exception to that," Caines said.

"They've got a great life, there's no question about it, people are caring for them. But they are living outdoors and winters are very hard on them."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a known cat lover, spoke to a volunteer at the sanctuary once, Caines said. Harper's wife Laureen has also been in touch with the sanctuary, and MPs are known to drop by from time to time.

The sanctuary is run by about seven volunteers, who visit it daily to make sure the cats are fed. The volunteers buy the wet food while a Quebec company donates the dry food.

"We used to have a donation box here, but two years ago we took it down because as the cats' numbers were going down, we had collected enough money over time," Caines said.

No one knows for sure where the cats came from, although one popular — if unconfirmed — story has them descended from cats brought to the area by Colonel John By, the founder of Ottawa and the Rideau Canal.

Caines said he enjoys the story, but has no idea if it's true.

"It's a wonderful spot and I'll certainly miss it when it does go," he said.

"Traditions, I guess, do end."

Related on HuffPost:

Loading Slideshow...
  • Shishi-Maru

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/28/shishi-maru-scottish-fold-cat-instagram-star-photos_n_2019833.html#slide=1688104">Shishi-Maru</a>, the scottish fold cat who took Instagram by storm, is number 29 on Buzzfeed's list of 2012's"Most Important Cats" and number 4 on MSN's "Most Influential Cats" list.

  • Oskar the Blind Kitten

    Coming in 8th on MSN's list of 2012's "Most Influential Cats," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/19/oskar-the-blind-kitten-friskies-best-cat-video_n_2161362.html">Oskar the blind kitten</a> is an Internet star. After making his debut in 2011, the inspirational cat has won the hearts of many around the world. This year, Oskar clinched the "<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/19/oskar-the-blind-kitten-friskies-best-cat-video_n_2161362.html">Best Cat Video</a>" at "The Friskies."

  • Lil Bub

    This cutie <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/07/lil-bub_n_1656204.html">perma-kitten</a> came in second on Buzzfeed's list

  • Cat Pushing A Small Cart

    It's not clear why this <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/07/30/cat-pushes-tiny-cart-in-japanese-youtube-video_n_1718104.html">cart-pushing cat</a> made Buzzfeed's "Most Important Cats" list.... but we're so taken with the adorable absurdity of it all that we don't even need a reason. The cat pushing a small cart came in 17th.

  • Colonel Meow

    Angry, furry and hell-bent on world domination, Colonial Meow squeezed into the top 5 of both MSN's (5th) and Buzzfeed's (4th) lists of cats.

  • Hank the Cat

    Ranking 19th on Buzzfeed's list and 13th on MSN's, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/09/hank-cat-senate-third_n_2101887.html">Hank the Cat</a>, who ran for Senate in Virginia, will always be remembered for looking snazzy in a bowtie.

  • Henri the Existentialist Cat

    Henri, the existentialist cat, haunted us this year with his depressing musings about life and its futility. Eerily, he came in 3rd in <em>both</em> Buzzfeed's and MSN's lists... What does this all mean?

  • Venus the Chimera Cat

    Stunning <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/25/chimera-cat_n_1826002.html">Venus</a>, the chimera cat, clinched the 10th spot on MSN's list of influential cats. She also came in 18th on Buzzfeed's list.

  • The Cat Who Sits Like A Human

    'Nuff said. This <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/12/chillest-cat-ever-_n_1875626.html">super chill cat</a> came in 10th on Buzzfeed's "Most Important Cats" list.

  • Grumpy Cat

    And of course... <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/10/tard-the-grumpy-cat-speaks-pretty-freaking-adorable_n_2273523.html">Tard the Grumpy Cat</a>. The top cat of 'em all.