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Cats in Paradise: Helping Save the Cats of Old San Juan

Feral and stray cats helped clean the city in Puerto Rico of rats, but they were later seen as the problem; along came Save A Gato to help.

Glorimar Anibarro  |  Nov 13th 2014


In the beginning, the city was populated by humans. Then the rats joined them. At first the two species coexisted harmoniously, hanging out in the sunshine, walking side by side down the cobblestone streets. But those greedy rats kept multiplying. That’s when the cats came to the rescue and took care of the rodent problem. As payment for services rendered, they were allowed to hang out and call the city of Old San Juan home.

Obviously the people never thought their new feline friends were going to take their invitation to heart and keep bringing up kittens. And so it was that when their numbers reached more than 400, it had become clear that the heroes were now the new challenge and needed rescue efforts.

All cat apocalypse drama aside, this problem was a real one. As an former inhabitant of San Juan, Puerto Rico, I witnessed the population increase for years. Of course I also helped them; like many good-intentioned citizens, I was part of the “feed-the-stray crowd.” Walking around with cat food in my bag was not easy, but I just couldn’t leave the cats hungry. Nourishment, however, was not all they needed. Veterinary checks and TNR are just as important, and that’s what we all failed to provide.

Save A Gato begins

Not everyone in Old San Juan is a cat person (I know, shocking!) and a lot of them wanted to get rid of the “problem.” Their voices were heard, but not loud enough. Like it happens in so many rescue stories, a brave group of women took matters into their own hands. In an effort to save the cats, they asked the powers that be to give them six months to spay and neuter all the feral colonies, and the Save A Gato group was born.

Did it work? You bet!

After a successful trap-neuter-return campaign, more than 95 percent of the cats were vaccinated, spayed/neutered, ears clipped, the works. But the group didn’t stop there. Ten feeding stations were set up around the city, and the group started a much-needed adoption program with the help of local pet stores and specific shelters in the U.S. Using the power of social media, the rescue group members have now a steady stream of volunteers who help feed, clean and look over the cats. With some help from the government, they acquired the Casita (little house) where they take care of kittens and sick cats.

The cats now roam in more specific areas. The feral ones stayed where they have always lived, around the Paseo (boardwalk) under rocks and close to the water, perfect for those no-filter-needed Instagram shots. The Casita is also home to the friendlier felines. Most of them had their chance at the adoption sites but couldn’t find an appropriate home. So, instead of keeping them in cages touring the stores forever, they are brought back here to chill in the awesome ocean-view property, talk amongst themselves and charm every human who walks along. It is a very touristy area, and the cats take full advantage of it. Many even get adopted by loving tourists. This is where I met Dorito.

Dorito the “all-around cat”

He’s white with black spots and has a rough look that screams street smarts, but at the same time he’s ready to receive some lovin’. For reasons that I can’t comprehend, he was not adopted. But maybe that was because his obvious life choice was to stay at the Save A Gato headquarters and make sure the important tasks are done.

Among his duties are inspecting humans and cats alike, counting the amount of food left in the house, and his favorite, making sure the shredded paper used in the litter boxes has the perfect length. Sometimes he has to dig in to investigate the ones at the bottom. It is adorable, but don’t tell him that.

So who pays for all this, you may ask? Good ol’ donations. Lots of donations. People like you and me who want to help and acknowledge the wonderful work that this organization has done and continues to do. Out of those 400 cats back when Save A Gato started 10 years ago, the colony now has around 250. The system is working and the humans are finally accepting them. The inhabitants of Old San Juan now see the cats as part of the neighborhood. They have earned the people’s respect.

It makes me extremely proud to be a Puerto Rican. Long live the gatos in Old San Juan!

This Catster correspondent wants to thank Sarai, Myriam, Claudia and the whole Save A Gato family for allowing me to tell their story. They, like so many volunteers around the world, do an amazing job educating about TNR and being a responsible cat guardian. A true labor of love. If you want to help the cats from Old San Juan, send them an email or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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About Glorimar Anibarro: A proud Puerto Rican now living in Southern California who traded a career in advertising for a new adventure as bilingual cat writer, sharing her knowledge of kitties in Spanish as the Gato Expert for About.com en Espa├▒ol and in English for Catster, among others. She has also mixed her love of paper dolls and graphic design to write, design, and illustrate the adventures of Gato Avocado, the two-dimensional cat living in a three-dimensional world.