I am writing this with an enormous sense of guilt, sadness and regret, but also no little anger and bitterness over the fact we’ve been forced to do something very much against our will.
The context to all this is that we live on an estate which is part of the British sovereign base territory on Cyprus, and as such all residents are required to comply with orders laid down by the camp authorities.
We have 3 cats of our own. Just over a year ago, a family who lived a few doors down from us unfortunately had to leave owing to domestic circumstances, taking their 4 dogs with them. They were also looking after 7 feral cats, and out of the goodness of our hearts, we took it upon ourselves to try and find new homes for as many of these cats as we could. We managed to rehome 3 of them, so for the best part of the last 12 months we have been feeding the remaining 4 cats. (You may be aware that Cyprus has a huge issue with feral/abandoned cats, with the consequence that animal sanctuaries are almost always permanently full. Despite several attempts, we have failed to find anyone else willing to give them a forever home.)
We got to know each of these cats individually, with their individual personalities and quirks, and inevitably we became very attached to them. We gave them individual names; Elsie, Ginge, Luna and Scampi.
Of all of them, it’s fair to say we were most attached to Elsie. She was a lovely, placid, sweet-natured cat, the most timid of the four, and was usually at the bottom of the pecking order at feeding time. In June she had to have an operation to remove a growth (during which time she was found to be suffering from FIV), and consequently had to wear a cone and be confined to a bedroom for a month until the stitches had healed. It was obvious that she was utterly miserable as a result of having to live with the cone, so it was a great relief to us (and her!) when it was removed. And then, more recently, we had to take her to the vet again owing to an ulcer and infection on her tongue which made it very painful for her to eat. We think we’ve spent about 800 euros on Elsie alone.
Luna is a beautiful cat, very affectionate once you get to know her, but very highly strung and easily agitated when she’s aware of the presence of an unfamiliar cat. She tends to be very ‘clingy’ at feeding time, and hence the process took a lot longer whenever she was there.
Ginge is just gorgeous, very tame and affectionate, and he’s very fond of rubbing his head all over your legs and just looking up at you and gazing almost lovingly into your eyes.
Scampi is much the smallest of the four, quite feisty and sometimes aggressive towards poor Elsie, but even she has shown us her softer side over time, becoming more cuddly and affectionate.
We found a secluded area on the estate, by a footpath but sheltered by bushes and by the side of a wall, where (we thought) we could feed the cats without being too obtrusive. It worked very well for several months, until the summer when a new couple moved into a house on the other side of the road. Initially the woman was not happy that we were feeding the cats where we were, but she was happy for us to take them round the other side of a wall, where there was a small patch of open land which was backed on to by gardens. It was a compromise solution which initially worked quite well for a while, but then fates started to conspire against us.
Firstly, a dog from one of the houses adjoining the patch of open land, started jumping over his garden fence and chasing the cats away from the feeding area. Then, another cat in the neighbourhood (whose owners are friends of ours) appeared on the scene. It just happened that this particular cat (who’s called Harry, by the way) was recovering from illness and, as a consequence, was on a restricted diet. Which was obviously too restricted for his liking, as on his scavenges for food, he came across ‘our’ cats, started chasing them off and helped himself to their food. We had to resort to the subterfuge of finding an alternative route to walk to the feeding site, so as not to attract Harry’s attention!
What really forced our hand, however, was when I was walking up the road to feed the cats recently, I was accosted by the man who had recently moved in, who made it clear that he wasn’t happy that we were feeding them, and that camp regulations prohibited us from doing so. Very reluctantly, as we did not wish to antagonise any of our neighbours or run the risk of falling foul of the camp authorities, we decided that we had no other option than to stop feeding these beautiful cats.
This is where our problems really began, because three of the four cats started to walk up to our house, hoping to be fed. Predictably, this caused a lot of disruption for our own cats’ feeding routine, and it was extremely difficult for us to keep our cats separate from the 3 ferals. It also caused considerable disruption and stress for ourselves, as we found that we were having to spend up to 2 hours every single evening having to police the evening feeding session. We started to dread early evenings, as we knew that chaos and stress were impending.
We found that the situation was just not sustainable. It was causing too much disruption to our daily lives, and too much stress every evening. (We had previously tried to find new homes for these cats by posting photos of them on relevant local Facebook sites, and asking the local pet shop to display photos of them in the window, but there were absolutely no takers.)
After much consideration, soul-searching and heartache, we very reluctantly came to the decision that we would have to take the ferals elsewhere. As all of the sanctuaries were full, we decided with the very heaviest of hearts that the only option open to us would be to try and catch these cats and leave them in a place where we thought they would have a reasonable chance of being fed, and hopefully being adopted by a kind-hearted resident.
We eventually decided that the best place to leave them was round the back of the secondary school where we both work, which is about a mile away from our house. Our school adjoins a primary school where there’s an existing colony of cats which are fed there, and in addition, it’s on the edge of a sizeable estate where – it was hoped – any strays might be adopted. Also, if we started leaving food, there was a chance that we might have the reassurance of seeing them again.
So we borrowed a trap and set it in our front garden. First in was poor Elsie, the cat who we would hoped to have gone in last. We took her to the agreed place at the back of the school, but rather than have the food we tried to put in front of her as a farewell meal, she was obviously so scared and disorientated that she just ran off into the surrounding bushes. That Saturday was my wife’s birthday; as you can imagine, it wasn’t the kind of thing which she hoped she had to do that day.
On Sunday my wife went in to do some work. She returned home in floods of tears. She’d hoped to see Elsie around the school, but when she didn’t do so, the realisation that we’d probably seen the last of Elsie hit her. She kept repeatedly saying that we’d just dumped a cat, and that she hated the guy who’d forced us into this course of action. I tried to persuade her that we’d done the best for Elsie, that we’d tried to give her some food before she went off, that we’d tried to leave her in a good place. She eventually recovered our composure and agreed that, as sad as it was for the cats, the course of action we were following was the best way of preserving our sanity. That evening we managed to catch Luna and leave her round the back of the school, as we did with Elsie. As with Elsie, Luna left the food we tried to offer her, and went off into the bushes.
On Monday it was Ginge’s turn. He turned up right on cue in our front garden in the early evening. I gave him what I knew would be my last cuddle with him. I crouched down and he walked round me, giving me that beautiful look right into my eyes. I felt absolutely rotten about what we were about to do to him.
I set the trap and walked away, having things to do in the house. Half an hour or so later, poor Ginge was inside. He was understandably very agitated, and his nose was red, obviously as a consequence of banging it repeatedly against the mesh. I tried in vain to reassure him, before we took him to the car for the short journey to school. We took him to the same place. We put some food in front of the trap, to give him the opportunity of a farewell meal. I opened the trap door, and he promptly came out. I tried, predictably in vain, to give him a goodbye cuddle, but understandably, given what we’d just done to him, he shot off into the distance for ever.
Now my wife will tell you that I’m not an emotional person. The last time I cried was after a breakup 25 years ago. But now I could not help myself. I just burst into tears. The implications of what we had done to these cats who we had supposedly loved, the likelihood that we’d likely never see them again, the fact that we’d betrayed their trust in us, hit me there and then. That I’d left Ginge in such a state, highly agitated and with his nose battered, made it even worse.
We got home and tried to convince ourselves that we’d done the right thing. We genuinely did our very best for those cats whilst they were in our care. But the situation we were having to endure was not sustainable. Our lives were suffering and we had to resolve the matter somehow. In any case, we would not have been able to feed these cats indefinitely.
At least, we thought, we could get back to living our lives now. There was relief with the sadness, and I could prepare the evening meal, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be called outside to try and intervene in feline territorial disputes in our garden.
Our relief that evening did not last long. As I was washing up the tea things, Roxy, one of the three cats we actually own, started howling by the side door which was open for ventilation. My wife went out to investigatethe cause of Roxy’s anxiety. To our great surprise, Elsie was there. She had taken only two days to cover the (admittedly short) distance between the school and our house. She looked reassuringly well.
As much as she still tugged at our heartstrings, we decided that she still had to be relocated. Our new venue of choice was an estate in a village about 3 miles, where we knew British expats lived, and hence (we thought) more likely to take kindly to a stray cat. We managed to get Elsie into a cage, and I took her to the said estate. Unfortunately, rather than walking towards the houses and the street lights, she disappeared into a clump of trees. I secretly hope Elsie makes it all the way back to our house (she was the least troublesome of the three we caught), but realistically I know that was my last sighting of her. Scared, disorientated, and alone in the darkness.
On the basis that Elsie took two days to return from the school, we are awaiting the imminent return of Luna and Ginge, sadly not with eagerness but trepidation. It would be very nice to think that we’d come across all three of them again, that they’d all look well and cared for. But at the moment (I’m writing this on Thursday), we are emotionally drained and stressed out, and it would be hugely difficult to have to go through the whole practical and traumatic ordeal of having to trap and relocate them again.
At least, for the time being, we can get our lives back and do normal things like gardening, cooking, housework, and – not least – looking after our own three cats. We are regaining the best part of half a day every week in our lives.
But in doing so, in doing what we did, we have paid a considerable emotional price. Ultimately, time is a healer, and the hurt will eventually disappear. But it doesn’t ease the huge regret, pain and guilt that we are feeling now. We have condemned these cats to an uncertain, and in all likelihood, bleak future. The thought that I’d never see Elsie’s sad, cute face again; that I’d never see beautiful Luna, hear her distinctive call, or stroke her again; that I’d never see gorgeous Ginge gazing lovingly up into my eyes again; all these are very hard to bear. Are we really any better than people who just dump their pets anywhere, without a pang of regret or a thought for their wellbeing?
Of course, you might think that we should not have got involved with feeding feral cats at all, especially given that we already had three of our own. Perhaps we’re just too soft, too gullible, too kind hearted. In the light of our experience, we would definitely not do the same thing again. I wouldn’t necessarily dissuade anyone else from doing so, but if they do, they must be prepared to make a commitment in terms of time and disruption to their daily routine; they must be prepared to make the necessary financial commitment in terms of vets’ fees; they must be prepared to either take these cats on for life, or otherwise wrestle with their conscience when it comes to trying to rehoming them; and ultimately, they must be prepared to have their hearts broken.
What of Scampi? She was the only one who never walked up to our house. We’ve seen her a couple of times since we relocated the others. She probably wonders why no-one’s feeding her anymore, why she’s been abandoned by her mates. My evening ritual is to go out for a walk around our estate; I am very tempted to take a packet of cat biscuits and, if I ever do see Scampi, just bend down, give her a little cuddle, surreptitiously give her a few biscuits (out of view of the individual who is responsible for this situation, of course) and wish her well. It’s our one remaining crumb of comfort that in all likelihood she’s still around, as a reminder of happier times. But, ultimately, we know for her, as well as the other three beautiful cats, that there’s little prospect of a happy ending.