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Fraser Valley animal advocate who helped spay, neuter 8,500 cats dies

Ena Vermerris with Ena’s Community Cats dedicated life to serving both animals and people
Ena Vermerris poses for a photo with Nietzsche – the ginger cat who worked at The Book Man – on Dec. 4, 2014. Vermerris died on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)

A well-loved Chilliwack woman who rescued cats, found them homes and helped pet owners with veterinary expenses has died.

Ena Vermerris, founder of Ena’s Community Cats, died in her home in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Aug. 30. She was 86.

Vermerris was pivotal in helping to control Chilliwack’s pet population. Over the years, she brought more than 8,500 cats to animal hospitals to be spayed or neutered. Her organization raised money to help people in need pay for spay/neuter procedures, pet medication and food, and other veterinary expenses.

She never took a penny for herself, rather she donated her own money to her own organization.

“She put money in – constantly,” said friend Collette Kolodychuk, who is also treasurer of Ena’s Community Cats.

Vermerris was determined, compassionate, driven, hard-working, feisty… and stubborn, Kolodychuk said with a laugh.

She had a “tough exterior with a marshmallow interior,” she added.

Others who knew her said she was kind, witty, passionate, dedicated and fierce, with a great sense of humour.

But the word most used to describe Vermerris was “angel.”

Desiree Klynsoon called her a “true animal hero.”

“Her heart was big for the thousands of animals, mostly cats, that she helped. She helped when people needed to be evacuated and needed a place for their animals.”

Vermerris launched Chilliwack Animal Safe Haven, a pet rescue and adoption organization, within the first year of her retirement in 2003. That same year she donated money to help build an SPCA shelter. In 2013, Vermerris started Ena’s Community Cats.

Her love of animals and people shone through at a young age and continued into her retirement years.

She was born in the Netherlands in 1937. During the Second World War, in 1945, dikes were bombed causing great flooding to her homeland. Vermerris, with a kitten tucked under her sweater, and her family were stranded on the roof of their home saying their goodbyes to each other when heroes arrived.

“She was eight years old and will never forget the Canadian soldiers who rescued her from the roof,” Kolodychuk said.

After that, she dedicated her life to wanting to serve people.

Her family moved to Canada in 1953 and she learned English to help her parents communicate with others.

In 1964 she graduated from nursing school. She was a nurse for nearly 40 years and was head nurse at Chilliwack General Hospital before retiring in 2002.

“She worked her way up from the kitchen, became a registered nurse, and rose through the ranks,” said friend Amber Price. “She was also a nurse at L.A. County Hospital for many years (and was) there during the Rodney King riots.”

Vermerris bought and built her parents’ house on Prest Road. Decades later, when her parents were aging, she moved from L.A. back home to Chilliwack to care for them. After they died, she stayed in their house before selling it and donating the money to the Royal Canadian Legion.

Over the years she gave an impressive $630,000 to the Legion – $500,000 of which was from the sale of her parents’ house.

She was given the Heartfelt Volunteer Award in 2008, the Chilliwack-Hope Community Hero Award in 2020 and also received a Paul Harris Fellowship from Rotary.

Vermerris was an avid reader, loved the Royal Family, and was very handy.

“She even re-shingled her own roof. Her can-do attitude fit everywhere in her life,” said Price.

Back in 2014, about a year after Ena’s Community Cats was launched, Vermerris spoke with The Chilliwack Progress about a cat calendar fundraiser that brought in much-needed money for the work she did.

“It’s an incredible help, and it allows me to help people with a very low income, or those who are disabled. I cut down the price of the spay and neuter so that it gets done,” Vermerris said at the time. “Individually it’s hard to see how you can make a difference, but collectively it happens and I can see it. It gives me an incredible amount of pleasure to do this.”

RELATED: Famous Chilliwack bookstore cat, Nietzsche, dies

She had a special connection with Dr. Dalbir Benipal at Glenn Mountain Animal Hospital in Abbotsford where she would personally drive cats, and sometimes dogs, to have surgery.

Vermerris had back surgery 10 years ago and hip surgery earlier this year, but that didn’t stop her from getting animals the care they needed. When she realized she could no longer drive the distance to Abbotsford, she hired someone to take the pets to Dr. Benipal, and she paid that person out of her own pocket.

Those who’ve been helped by Vermerris shared their stories online after hearing of her death. One woman mentioned that Vermerris helped pay for hip surgery for her dog Luke. Another said she was able to have her kitten spayed at a reduced cost. Others listed names of pets adopted from or helped by Vermerris – Jimi Boy, Jarjar, Peach, Tux, Tiger, Balboa, Whiskers, Mittens.

“When she took you under her wing, she would go to the end of the Earth for you,” Kolodychuk said, who was also a neighbour of Vermerris.

Kolodychuk recalled peering out her window and seeing Vermerris sitting in her chair outside her home watching the goings-on of the neighbourhood.

“She was a beautiful person and had an amazing impact on the community,” Kolodychuk said. “What I’m going to miss is being able to look out and see Ena watching over me.”

Jenna Hauck

About the Author: Jenna Hauck

I started my career at The Chilliwack Progress in 2000 as a photojournalist.
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