Nestling in the foothills of the picturesque vineyard-clad Constantiaberg Mountains in Cape Town, South Africa, is Pollsmoor Prison. This maximum-security facility once housed Nelson Mandela, the country’s most famous political prisoner from the apartheid era, who later became the country’s first black president. Today it houses murderers, rapists, notorious gangsters — and a unique feral cat colony, which impacts the lives of those around them.
The story of how these cats came to be has all the key elements of a good movie: A dramatic race against time, a hazardous boat ride from a tiny island to the mainland, and hurdles of red tape cut by determination and perseverance. And a happy ending.
In the 1960s, when Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid cohorts were taken to Robben Island, a desolate island prison six miles off the coast of Cape Town and very similar in many aspects to Alcatraz, the wardens, bored by their job and plagued by rats that infested the buildings, brought a handful of cats from the mainland as pets and put them to work taking care of the rats.
In the 1980s, after Mandela had spent 18 years on the island, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town and the facility on Robben Island was closed, with plans to turn it in a museum and wildlife reserve. The handful of cats living there for decades had multiplied into a feral population of hundreds, and suddenly the authorities were after them, claiming they were decimating the wildlife on the island. Out went a call to shoot them all.
Enter an animal lover named Rita Brock. When the story hit the headlines, Brock was appalled. “It really pushed my buttons,” she recalls. “The concept was out of line with the new focus of the island, namely to be a beacon of humanity.”
Together Brock and the local SPCA went over to the island to see the situation firsthand, and they couldn’t find a single cat. There weren’t even any footprints, leaving Brock to believe that perhaps it was already too late.
Finally the SPCA went into negotiations with the prison authorities to get a permit to conduct an extensive search of the island, with permission to remove every cat they could trap. They were given six weeks and immediately went to work. Sadly, they only managed to trap 24 and, in the end, only 15 were healthy enough to be relocated.
But where to take them was the next question. “Somewhere along the line, somebody suggested Pollsmoor Prison,” says Brock, mainly because it has large, self-sufficient farmlands as part of the facility.
It was agreed. The cats from Robben Island would follow in Mandela’s footsteps and go to Pollsmoor. Their new home would be a barn next to a freshwater dam in some cornfields. Special feeding stations would ensure they would always have food.
However, when Brock visited the prison for the first time to organize the feline relocation, she couldn’t believe her eyes. There were cats everywhere, disappearing into drains, peering out from behind rocks, and hiding in the tall grass. She also couldn’t help noticing lots of sheets hanging out of the prison’s windows, only to learn that many prisoners were letting starving strays in the area come into their cells by climbing up these sheets. They were looking after them and sharing their food with these hapless creatures.
“That’s when I realized that apart from simply releasing the Robben Island cats here and monitoring them permanently, I would also have to take care of all these other feral cats, too,” Brock says.
Brock approached the authorities for permission to introduce a TNR program and also help supply the inmates with proper cat food and veterinary supplies to assist them with the feral cats they’d adopted. Surprisingly, they agreed.
“I will never forget the day we released the island cats,” she recalls. “It was a moment of triumph, but when I saw them rushing off into the bushes, I felt I was losing my babies. My only thought was, please let them be safe.”
Safe they most certainly are. Help has come from a surprising source: The prison wardens and members of their families have taken it upon themselves to assist with feeding, and they also keep an eye on the cats when they patrol the prison grounds as part of their duties.
Subsequently, Brock has found herself with the responsibility of acquiring food donations to feed all these cats as well as supplying prisoners with flea treatments, deworming pills and products to treat ear mites, all of which are a constant concern.
With her smile and gracious determination, Brock fought more red tape to get permission for me to visit the prison and interview inmates with feline companions. The day I went to meet inmate Wayne Hutchinson, his beloved cat named Spookies had been missing for several days. When he alerted the warden at our meeting, the kindly officer used his authority to launch a full-scale search in the prison section known as Medium B to locate the missing pet.
“She’s been living with me for a year,” says Hutchinson, “and she’s totally stolen my heart and changed my life around. I have been going crazy without her. I was abused as a child and she has taught me how to love and learn the errors of my ways.”
When Brock found Hutchinson drawing pictures of cats in his cell, she organized paints and canvases to allow him to work on what was obviously a hidden talent, and has even helped him sell his art.
Gregory Henry is serving out the last few months of a murder conviction and brought his beloved tabby, Nibbles, to meet me. He was making plans with Brock for his cat to go into foster care when he comes out of prison until he has organized a secure place to live and able to take care of his furry soulmate.
“She really looks out for me,” he says of Nibbles. “If I am sleeping, she will come and nuzzle my neck to make sure I am okay. She also knows I hate cockroaches, and if one comes into my cell she will show me where it is so I can get rid of it. She has taught me what it means to be considerate of others. Who knew I would learn life lessons from a cat?”
Together these men and other cat-loving inmates have worked tirelessly to teach other prisoners about animals, and they have showed many gangsters, who previously only saw cats as objects to be abused in gang initiation ceremonies, that they are in fact creatures to love and respect.
While many prisons around the world allow inmates to have dogs — teaching them how to look after them and socialize them so that they stand a good chances of being adopted into loving homes — the Pollsmoor Prison cats are unique. And they are changing the lives of all those who come into contact with them.
As for Brock, her work is never done. These days, she has a special pass enabling her to come and go through the prison gates. She has set up a free spay and neuter program for the pets of prison staff living on the grounds of Pollsmoor, and is working to reduce the feral population by finding cats loving homes with the help of the non-kill animal rescue group The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS). The search for food donations and more volunteers is ongoing. She does it all with a smile and the satisfaction of knowing that one person can make a difference.
Footnote: Hutchinson was reunited with Spookies several days after this interview. She was found trapped on the roof of the prison.
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About the author: Sandy Robins is an award-winning multimedia pet lifestyle expert and author and spokesperson. She is the 2013 recipient of the Outstanding Journalism and Contribution to the Pet Industry award, presented by the American Pet products Association. Her third cat book, The Original Cat Bible, will be on bookshelves spring 2014. She lives in southern California with her family and fur kids cats Fudge and Ziggy, and has been voted “favorite auntie” by every dog on the block. Follow her on Facebook.