It was a clear tropical night in my small studio apartment in Ocean Park, San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Miami-style windows were wide open, letting in the sound of waves. As I was falling asleep, I heard the common cry three stories below. The usual scary mixture of wailing screams, scratching, and spitting.
The parking lot was a gathering place for a feral cat colony. Granted, they were probably there because I kept feeding them, but I’ve never been able to just sit and watch a hungry animal go by. It is simply not in my nature. Once word got out that a crazy woman on the third floor kept food and water for them on her balcony, the never-ending procession of cats up and down the spiral staircase began.
The biggest instigator of them all was my cat, Mario.
Mario was just a cool cat. He was the only cat I know who would follow me to the beach and sit on the sand while I read. I am convinced that in a previous life he was a surfer. He was blond and his hair, no matter how much you brushed it, had the consistency of dreadlocks. He was also equipped with an amazing “drop that loser boyfriend” alarm system. If he didn’t like the guy, the relationship would not last (and, no surprise, he was always right).
Mario was the king of the street. He charmed every neighbor, from kids to senior citizens. I would come home late from work, and I had to walk around to see which house he would come out of. “Mario is here. We gave him tuna, is that okay?”
The ferals were his friends and always welcome on my balcony. The biggest difference between them: Mario was neutered. When heat season started, harmony was destroyed. Males fighting constantly over the females, the females scratching back, me running around with rubbing alcohol and cotton squares to mend the wounded. I couldn’t keep up. I was exhausted. It was a situation that I couldn’t control.
On one particular night when the fighting started, I looked out the window and found an epiphany staring back at me. The scene was so bizarre and funny that to this day it is still ingrained in my brain. Loud meows, hissing, hairs standing on end … and Mario sitting right in the middle of them like a referee. When he felt me looking down, he looked up as if saying, “What the hell is going on?”
Yes, they were ferals, they had no home and to spay and neuter them all would cost a lot of money — money that I didn’t have. But that simple look made me realize that even though I was feeding them, I wasn’t doing anything to solve the problem. A horrible feeling of frustration came over me. How could I help?
I didn’t have the resources to start a proper spay/neuter campaign. Social media was still in its infancy and had not become the powerful tool that it is today. But I had a voice, and I could start preaching about the wonderful gift that is spaying and neutering your pet.
It started with my friends. To them, cutting a cat’s balls was wrong! “Poor cat. No wonder he wanders the streets. You are the animal,” they said, laughing.
It became very obvious to me that the problem was not that it costs time and money, but that it was a cultural macho thing. How do you convince a society that to give cats a longer, healthier life, you need to stop their eternal urge to mate? How do you do this when people think it’s the way is supposed to be, that male cats have “needs”?
The results of those “needs” are seen everywhere — thousands of stray cats and dogs around the island. Many were born from a house pet but discarded when the owners couldn’t find them a home. So they wander the streets trying to survive while having litters of their own. If they become a nuisance to some neighborhood, the pound is called, and someone picks them up and euthanizes them.
Nowadays, things are finally starting to change. Animal lovers in Puerto Rico are uniting and creating organizations whose sole purpose is to spread the spay and neuter message, educating the communities, explaining that feral cats are friends and not a problem. Spay or neuter them and they will become allies on the street. No more fights. No more rats. Sadly, no more geckos either (no plan is perfect). Let’s give them a chance to live. A neutered male cat is still macho. He will still walk around proudly through his conquered territory, like my Mario used to do. He never felt less of a macho. He owned the beach, baby!
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