I have two loves in my life: travelling and cats.
I’ve loved cats ever since I can remember. There have always been cats in our family home – I got my own first cat when I was four. She was a beautiful white kitten who I named Elsa, after the lion from the Born Free films.
I used to watch Viriginia McKenna in those movies, dreaming that one day I’d be able to rescue and care for animals, releasing them back into the wild when they were fit and healthy.
So it wasn’t a surprise to my parents when one day I brought home another white cat I’d found injured on the road. I was always picking up scrappy half dead pigeons and sparrows, trying to nurse them back to health. And I have memories of saving a baby mouse from the paws of our cat Amy, one summer. I scooped up the tiny, blind furless creature, and with tears streaming down my face, ran inside asking mum if there was anything we could do. Being the kind and patient mum she is, she gave me a cage for him, with hamster bedding and water. I called him Monty, and tried to feed him milk with a tiny syringe. After a week, one morning I checked on him, but he had gone. I was heartbroken.
That love of animals – and in particular, cats – is still strong, and now I’m all grown up with my grown up flat, I have three cats of my own to look after.
But despite having three loving, cuddly felines waiting for me back in the UK, whenever I’m away I always seem to gravitate towards cats. I can’t help it. I just want to pick up all the waifs and strays and take them home with me, where I can de-flea, feed and take care of them.
Here are just a few of the many cats I’ve met on my travels:
So on my recent trip to Puerto Rico, when I stumbled upon a clan of cats living in the colourful colonial capital, San Juan, I was in heaven. There were cats of all colours, shapes and sizes, just lying in the sun, sitting on the paths, cooling off in the shade and chilling out on the rocks by the water.
Whether you’re a cat lover or not, if you’re in the old town, you must talk a stroll along the Paseo del Morro, just north of the San Juan gate. That’s where you’ll see a huge group of cats roaming the streets. This is one of four cat colonies around the town, and though the cats aren’t exactly stray, they don’t belong to any individual. Rather, they belong to the town.
The San Juan cats are a part of the old town experience, much like the cats of Istanbul (which is aptly nicknamed “Catstantinople”), they are everywhere. But while the cats on the el Morro walkway are happy and peaceful, they need help to stay alive and healthy. That’s where the Save a Gato charity comes in.
Save a Gato (“gato” is Spanish for cat) is a non-profit group of volunteers who have been working hard since 2004 to care, feed and (if possible) rehome the large clan of homeless, abandoned, and abused cats in San Juan old town. Most of the cats around the Paseo del Morro trail are feral, though. This means that they’re not really used humans, and have never really had human contact or care. They are used to living outside, and have become accustomed to life without human companionship.
Through an agreement with the National Park Service, Save a Gato provides food, water and medical assistance for these cats. It works to control the number of cats in the colony, through the practice of TNR: Trap, Neuter and Release. This is something founder Sylvine Sherwood and the rest of the volunteers are very proud of.
Save a Gato was setup as a way of easing the population of cats in San Juan old town – Puerto Rico is suppose to have animal control, but each municipality is in charge of their strays.
Though San Juan has animal control, it is overwhelmed and has a small budget. The municipally does not donate to Save a Gato, so therefore the organisation relies solely on donations, grants, contests and dedicated volunteers.
The lovely volunteers at the Save a Gato cassita stressed that the organisation is not a cat shelter, and it can not accept unwanted cats, no matter the issue. Not because it doesn’t want to, but because it doesn’t have enough space or resource to care for more.
TNR stands for Trap, Neuter, and Release. Save a Gato is committed to this process, where it humanly traps the cats, then works with local vets to neuter (and clip the ears for easy recognition), give the cats their necessary jabs (rabies, etc), de-worm them, attend to any other medical needs, and then return the feral cats to the colony.
As Save a Gato isn’t a shelter, the cats are then returned healthy to the Paseo, to lounge and sunbathe on the rocks. It does offer the option to adopt the more friendly cats and kittens though, while they’re going through the TNR process, so check out the Facebook page for the latest updates. There are loads of kitties looking for loving homes, like this little playful one:
Or this little scaredy-cat:
The cats that are not successfully adopted are returned to their original colonies, where they receive love and attention from the Save a Gato volunteers, San Juan residents and passers by.
The process will eventually lower the amount of stray cats and kittens in the streets of San Juan old town. And it’s already working. Since 2004 the colony has decreased by around 50%, solely through the organisation’s efforts of TNR and adoption when possible.
“We like to consider ourselves in the maintenance phase of the colony,” says Save a Gato. Volunteers visit the colony once a day to monitor the health of the cats and kittens while continuing the TNR process with new cats.
So, why are there so many cats in San Juan old town?
It’s believed that some of the cats are descendants from the original cats that arrived on the ships when the first Spanish settlers came to the island. The majority were bought to the city in the 1950s though, to help reduce the number of rats. In return for their pest control service, the cats were allowed to stay, calling San Juan old town home.
The city residents never considered that animals like to breed, however. So when the population climbed to over 400 cats, it was clear that the helpers were now the problem, which needed controlling.
So the TNR service that Save a Gato practices is actually a win/win situation for everyone; the cat population is controlled, and so is the rodent population.
The ladies at the Save a Gato cassita that I met were so kind, and did an amazing job educating me about TNR, telling the history of the different cats in their care, and showing us what it really means to be dedicated to the cause. Like modern day Virginia McKennas, I have nothing but admiration and praise for these ladies.