Cats of the Canaries

Written by Ros, published by Cat World

On our visits to various parts of the world, my husband, Mike, and I have been alternatively dismayed and elated to see all the cats that eke out an existence begging for food from tourists, and to observe the attitudes of local people towards them. This year, the two weeks we spent in Fuerteventura proved to be no exception, but here we found many different classes of café-dwelling cat.

Still reeling from the tearful goodbyes to our own three cats left behind in chilly England, we were delighted when, within minutes of arriving at our villa in the small fishing village of El Cotillo, we were greeted noisily by a large tom and his two sisters. All three were plump, and friendly to the point of forwardness. They also had the misfortune to be snowy white from head to tail with pink noses, ears and pads. At the age of two they already had skin cancer on their ears and noses.

Boot, Tufty and Earry enjoy an illicit snack.

For a week we resisted the temptation to give them illicit snacks, but they would visit daily, happy just to purr contentedly on our laps and chirrup a greeting when we returned from our outings. Eventually we succumbed, much to the disapproval of the receptionist, but I know that we were not the only people to give them scraps. We nicknamed the male "Boot", short for "boot-faced cat", and his two sisters "Tufty" and "Earry" due the state of their ears. "Earry" had the most advanced case of skin cancer of the three, while "Tufty" had attractive, lynx-like tufts on her ears.

The owners of the villa were aware of the problem and yet had taken no steps to treat the condition apart from having them neutered to avoid the possibility of continuing the line of white kittens. We found this odd, because in all other respects they were evidently animal lovers and genuinely fond of the cats.

It should be noted that in general the people of Fuerteventura are not rich, but that veterinary treatments are more expensive than they are in the UK. For instance the cost of spaying a female is around £80.

Many of the bars and restaurants had resident cats of all shapes and sizes. Well fed and in good condition, they invariably arrived with the first course and if pleased with what was on offer, would extend the honour of sitting on one's lap during coffee. We were surprised to see several such cats with Siamese colouring in different parts of the island. These were not the slim, pale, angular type with enormous ears with which we have become familiar, but fairly short stocky cats with fur which was relatively coarse and thick. They had round faces, small ears and deliciously blue eyes. One of these, which we got to know at a local bar, had seal coloured points, but we also saw others sporting chocolate and tabby colouring.

Their official feeding place outside the villa.

The idea of keeping cats as houseguests seemed to be somewhat novel to the islanders. Although many people "owned" cats and enjoyed their company, we got the impression that in general they were not welcome indoors. The owners of our villa had built a rough shelter for them just outside where they were given their regular food.

It was quite common for cats to be called in at night to protect them from traffic and to avoid the possibility of them getting into fights with the local strays, but they would generally spend the night in a cage on the flat roof. This is not such a great hardship for them as Fuerteventura enjoys a year-round warm and dry climate. It's very common to see dog kennels on roofs as well.

For the many feral cats life is not so easy. Several times we passed two black and white cats, clearly siblings, curled up together on top of the municipal dustbins outside the supermarket. At our approach one evening they woke up looking scared and startled and vanished into the gloom. This made us feel guilty for disturbing them.

At the old harbour in El Cotillo we discovered a colony of a dozen or so. They had made their homes in small hollows and holes in the rocks. We were surprised to find a beautiful shorthaired blue male among the troop of multi-coloured moggies. In this area there were several bars and restaurants. On more than one occasion we stopped there for a beer and felt so bad about having nothing to offer them that we felt duty bound to order a plate of the local ham and cheese as well.

Rock-dwelling cats in the old harbour

We were told by a waiter that the cats caught fish in the shallows, but we only ever saw them catching tit bits of ham and pizza, or anything else they could get hold of. He also told us of a German tourist who had turned up on every morning of her holiday laden with cat food and biscuits for them.

It was fortunate that during our stay there was a flea market held to raise funds for the local animal protection charities. Here we met Iris Overbeck. She and her husband are German, but live on the island with several pets. She works tirelessly for Tierhilfe, literally "Animal Assistance", an organisation based in Germany. We talked to her about their work with the feral cats and other animals in Fuerteventura.

They work in collaboration with OKAPI, the Animal and Plant Protection Society of Fuerteventura, and Twinkle Trust Animal Aid, a British organisation which twice a year sends a small party consisting of volunteer vets and helpers to round up and neuter all the feral cats they can in a week.

The cats are also treated for any illnesses, inoculated against cat flu and given vitamins and food before being released in the same area that they were picked up. To avoid the possibility of being caught twice, each cat has the tip of one ear clipped while they are under the anaesthetic. Sadly there are usually a few cats that are so sick or injured that the kindest option for them is a humane injection.

All the kittens that they find and some of the adults are re-homed. Many have found new homes in Germany. Re-homing cats to Britain is obviously a difficult and expensive procedure due to our quarantine regulations, but it has been achieved by individuals who fall in love with particular cats while on holiday.

The charities have built up a good working relationship with apartment and restaurant owners, many of whom are helpful and even give homes to some of the strays. They have also set up "Cat Cafés" in some of the bigger resorts. Here cat-loving tourists can leave food for the cats without causing annoyance to those who are less sympathetic.

The three charities jointly issue a free biannual magazine called Amigos, which is divided into three sections written in Spanish, German and English. As well as containing a lot of photographs and heart-warming stories about the animals which have been rescued and re-homed it also has articles intended to educate the reader in various aspects of animal care. The overwhelming message that they try to get across to readers is to have all pets neutered and not to abandon them.

We voiced our concerns about the state of our three white friends. Iris told us that generally white cats were removed to a less sunny country, usually Germany, but as these were "owned" by someone that might not be possible.

While we were talking a Dutch couple arrived carrying a black kitten. They had set out to walk the 12 miles from their apartment, and four miles out had found the kitten, all alone crying by the side of a relatively busy road. She was about three months old, in good condition and well fed, so it was a bit of a mystery as to how she came to be there. It was decided that with the number of local animal-lovers who would no-doubt visit the stall, with any luck she would be offered a home before the end of the day. Otherwise she could be taken to the rehoming centre. We last saw her curled up beside the dog-shaped collection box which was practically the same size as she was. She had chosen the best possible day to get lost.

Siamese on lap at café

On returning to El Cotillo we stopped at our local bar for coffee and noticed that our "Siamese" friend was missing the tip of one ear. So even this beautiful cat had a past.

A few weeks after our return home we received a letter from Iris saying that she and a friend had visited the villa we had stayed at and talked to the owners about Boot and his sisters. As we suspected they had said that they wanted to keep them.

The black kitten at the flea market had been re-united with her owners, who were very pleased to find her. Finally she reported that shortly after our visit the team from Twinkle Trust Animal Aid had visited El Cotillo and successfully rounded up and neutered 65 cats.

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