As a writer and blogger dedicated to spreading awareness about animal welfare issues throughout the globe, I’m excited to find individuals and organizations working hard to improve the lives of animals. I stumbled upon such a group, Save A Gato, while on vacation in Puerto Rico with my husband. This mighty group of 20 volunteers has fed and cared for Old San Juan’s street cats since the organization’s founding in 2004.
Per an agreement with the National Park Service, Save A Gato also manages a feral cat colony living along the Paseo del Morro Recreation Trail, a waterfront walkway that winds alongside the San Juan Bay and the western section of the San Juan Wall. Through trap-neuter-return, the organization has decreased the colony’s population from 250 in 2005 to around 100. Feral cats receive regular food, water, medical care, and shelter for the rest of their lives, while kittens and friendly cats get a chance to find forever homes throughout Puerto Rico and in the mainland U.S. Some of the felines that prowl the Paseo and streets of Old San Juan are believed to be descendants of cats that arrived on the ships of the first Spanish settlers when they came to Puerto Rico in the 17th century.
On the Paseo en route to meeting Save A Gato volunteers, it didn’t take long to see the cats, many of them prowling in the bushes or sunning themselves on the rocks along the water. Some were still enjoying breakfast at one of several feeding stations and barely acknowledged our presence, while a few of the more sociable kitties seemed to take an interest and followed us. Minutes later it appeared we’d attracted a rainbow of cats — calicos, tortoiseshells, marmalades, black-and-white cats, gray cats, gingers, and black cats. Most appeared healthy, contented, and well fed.
We proceeded into the park, where Save A Gato maintains a one-room building called a casita, where volunteers care for adoptable cats and kittens as well as sick or injured cats. We were greeted at the bright pink shack by Myriam Pabon, volunteer coordinator and casita director, and Irma Podesta, Save A Gato’s lead rescuer, trapper, and social media coordinator. Both have been with the organization for more than a decade.
We were swarmed by some of the 70 friendly kitties that live around the casita. They rubbed against us, climbed in our laps, and meowed for attention. Most are adoptable but simply haven’t been able to find the right homes. Chris is allergic to cats but maintained a brave face as he became surrounded. One climbed into his lap as if to say, “Hey, why aren’t you petting me?”
Myriam explained that Save A Gato has made huge strides in Old San Juan during the past 12 years, yet the organization faces daunting challenges.
“More than 60 percent of the population in Puerto Rico is living in poverty, so if people don’t have money for themselves, their children, and their needs, forget about the animals,” Myriam said. “Because we’re having hard economic times, a lot of people are losing their homes and leaving their animals behind. Even people with money don’t want to spend anything on a cat.”
She explained that even people who don’t want to spend money to take care of their pets don’t want to take them to a shelter where they will die.
“We want to decrease the population of cats,” she continued, “but people are coming from all around the island just to leave their cats here. It’s endless because we have to give priority to the community of Old San Juan and we have so many animals here that aren’t neutered, and we neuter almost weekly.”
Relief might come soon via the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Its many progressive initiatives include islandwide, high-volume spay and neuter services, humane education for public elementary school students, and working with local governments to crack down on irresponsible pet owners and enforce Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154.
“The real source of the cure comes from the education,” said Tara Loller, HSUS director of strategic campaigns and special projects. “Once you show people a better approach, educating them about why you don’t throw a litter of kittens into the street, for example, they’re more amenable to making these changes.”
Loller said she hopes people will want to be part of the change once they are educated and learn about available resources. The government supports the effort, she said, realizing homeless animals hurts tourism.
But until that happens, Save A Gato will work hard to help Old San Juan’s street cats and find funding to continue its life-saving mission.
“We need more donations, more volunteers, more adoptions, and to send more cats to the U.S.,” Irma said. “With enough money, we could fix every cat in Old San Juan. This is work that never ends.”
Here are ways to help the cats of Old San Juan:
About the author: A devoted dog mom, journalist, and animal activist, Lisa Plummer Savas uses her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one entitled Pug, and a very understanding husband. Read more of her work at her blog and website, and follow her on Twitter.