UPDATE: According to the Brandon and Area Lost Animals Facebook page, Butterscotch the cat was found Saturday morning and has been freed from the trap on its head.
BRANDON—It's getting near dusk, and Toni Gramiak is down on all fours setting a trap for a cat. The bait is a piece of fried chicken tied to a string.
"It's KFC tonight," she says.
Gramiak sprays some pheromone in nearby bushes. She sprinkles catnip and lays out a handful of dried food.
The trap is not just for any cat. It's the orange-and-white tabby locals have dubbed "Butterscotch," otherwise known far and wide - with its photo splashed across newspapers and Internet sites across Canada - as the elusive stray with the bird feeder on its head.
"Obviously, he's become famous," Gramiak says. "A cat wearing a hat."
First, some clarification: It's not a bird feeder, it's a bug trap made of plastic. Second, the story behind the hunt for Butterscotch is more than just some cat-and-mouse effort by some unrelenting animal lovers that has now lasted more than two weeks.
In the words of Gramiak, who now spends most of her waking hours tracking the feline, it's "beyond bizarre."
Spoiler alert: She's right.
Butterscotch was first sighted in a suburb in Brandon's south end on July 23 by a concerned resident. Gramiak, co-ordinator for Brandon and Area Lost Animals, was notified.
So Gramiak loaded up her minivan with traps and night-vision cameras acquired for previous missions - she mostly tracks lost or stray dogs - and went to work.
Her goal was to follow the cat, track his routes and routine, and find the best spot to set her camouflaged traps. It's a mundane, time-consuming process. "We're interested in his path of travel, his behaviour," she explains. "We need to find a spot where he's calm."
From her minivan, Gramiak co-ordinates a handful of volunteers who station themselves around the upscale suburban neighbourhood. One is parked on a street frequented by Butterscotch. Another, Sandy Brown, is watching the monitors positioned outside the trap, set in a home where the cat was spotted by a paper carrier at the end of his nocturnal jaunts.
Gramiak notes spotting Butterscotch is easy. It's the trapping that's hard.
In the last two weeks alone, Gramiak estimates she's received about 75 calls, texts and emails of sightings from total strangers.
"These people are amazing," she says. "What people have done to help this cat. Incredible. They're going above and beyond. And it's just a cat, right?"
Sure enough, around 7:45 on Thursday night, Gramiak's phone buzzes. It's a text from a resident who has spotted the cat.
"He's here," Gramiak announces. "He's early."
Within minutes, Gramiak is parked in the area in question. And, behold, there's Butterscotch in the fur, lounging under a bush in a front yard across the street. The bug trap is still covering his head.
After a few minutes, the tabby gets up, stretches and prepares to cross the street right in front of Gramiak's vehicle. The moment the cat steps out on the street from behind a parked car, Gramiak notices a truck barreling down the street. She frantically tries to wave the driver down while Butterscotch, pretty much blindfolded, begins to amble across the pavement.
Fortunately, the truck misses Butterscotch by a split second. The wince-inducing moment was a glimpse of Gramiak's worst nightmare.
"To watch and know I can do nothing for him... it's hard," she says. "If he got hit by a car right in front of me... "
But Butterscotch is none the wiser. So he continues to a destination Gramiak says is a date like clockwork each evening: "His girlfriend's house."
"Without fail," Gramiak continues. "It's quite the relationship. But I think he has other girlfriends she doesn't know about. He's such a Casanova."
Gramiak knows the cat's routine because she and her volunteers have spent countless hours tracking him. Every night. All night. They say tranquilizer darts are too dangerous.
Gramiak also doesn't want to chase or spook Butterscotch using nets, given his limited vision. So they use only traps that are monitored.
So far, nothing.
Earlier this week was the closest call, when Butterscotch was seen by Brown and another volunteer, Laurie Unruh, milling about a trap in the wee hours. "We thought he was going to go in," Brown recalls. "We were like, 'One more step! One more step!' But he walked right by."
Adds Unruh: "It's frustrating. It's heartbreaking. It's a challenge. All you want to do is do the best for this cat."
It's unclear whether Butterscotch has owners, now or in the past - no one has stepped forward. If caught, the first order of business will be to "take that thing off his head, find out if he has owners (tattoo) and if he's a long, lost cherished pet. If not, we'll vet him and find him a home."
The good news is the trap has adjusted on Butterscotch's head to the point where he can eat and drink, which they didn't believe he could do at first. The bad news is KFC bait won't be so appealing.
Gramiak, however, insists Butterscotch would have been captured long ago if not for one man who has become her nemesis. Their bitter feud has resulted in threats issued, several calls to the local police and accusations of sabotage.
Oh, yeah, the bizarre part.
When asked about the "saboteur" in question, two area residents, who did not want to be identified, just exchange knowing glances.
Without prompting, they begin to rattle off stories, dating back years, of car windows being shot out by pellet guns, cars being egged, nails spread on driveways and dog feces left on car windows.
"It goes on and on," one says.
They suspect the man is the culprit, but have no proof. They just stay clear.
"Nobody will look at him," another neighbour says. "Who wants all that?"
Gramiak then explains how she was at first on talking terms with the man, but the relationship soured when she found him spreading lawn clippings in front of the trap soon after. The relationship turned sour.
Gramiak says the man began to intentionally create noise - using a water-pressure hose or banging on his fence - to keep Butterscotch away. He would turn on the lights (and cameras) that surround his home at all hours of the night.
"He started blatantly sabotaging right in front of me," Gramiak says. "We've had to start (tracking) from scratch."
As Gramiak is relating her grievances, the man steps outside his home and sits down on his front steps and stares at her vehicle, parked some 36 metres away. He then gets up and disappears into his attached garage.
Seconds later, Gramiak's vehicle is hit by a floodlight. It's the same man, standing in his front yard and pointing the blinding light towards Gramiak's vehicle. In the suburbs.
Gramiak isn't surprised. It happens on a regular basis.
"How do you like the spotlight?" she asks. "We might even get the strobe light if you're lucky."
After the man, in his 40s or early 50s, turns off the spotlight, a reporter approaches and asks for an interview.
"See ya," he says, retreating into the garage and shutting the door. "Get off my property or I'll call 911."
On one side, the Butterscotch Brigade of animal lovers. On the other, the man they believe to be keeping the cat out of the trap.
Volunteers like Jo-ann Pasklivich-Holder, who first brought Gramiak kippers and sardines to use as bait, know their efforts are seen by some residents as, pardon the pun, a little flighty.
"Some people say we're nuts. It's just a cat," the mental-health community worker shrugs. "To each his own. Everybody has a right to choose a cause. I'd help anybody in distress, people or animals."
It's the same reason Pasklivich-Holder recently volunteered to sandbag around homes in the Rural Municipality of Cornwallis, on the outskirts of Brandon. To help.
Pasklivich is adamant she'll keep up the hunt until Butterscotch is safe. Needless to say, Gramiak agrees.
"When I have to catch an animal, it's a job I have to do," she says. "It's something you can't walk away from. Not a cat that's in distress like this one. The cat has to be captured."
It's now approaching 1 a.m. early Friday morning and Gramiak is parked on a pitch-dark road, not far from the trap. Two monitors are flickering on her dashboard while she constantly scans websites and message boards for any word of her friendly prey. Another long night awaits.
What if you catch him, someone asks. What then?
"Sleep and eat," she replies. "And cuddle. He'll get cuddled whether he likes it or not."