It started in 1999 when I went on a week-long holiday to the Greek island of Aegina. While walking in the evening air, I heard the tiny cries of kittens coming from a gravelled lot. It took some time to find them all, but an entire litter of kittens, perhaps only four weeks old had been abandoned, they had crawled up into the engines of the vehicles parked there, clinging to the tops of the tires, crying, their eyes filled with pus and filth, their bodies scrawny, their fur matted.
I went into a nearby taverna and scrounged a box. With the kittens tucked safely within, I used the payphone to call the number of an animal charity I had seen posted in one of the other tavernas. About thirty minutes later a woman drove up and greeted me. With tears in her eyes, she took the box of quivering kittens and my cash donation to help with their food and medicine, thanking me for saving them from certain death. She promised they would be well taken care of.
A month later I quit my job, put my things in storage, cleared out my savings and went back to the island of Aegina to work at the dog shelter as an unpaid volunteer (the cat shelter was in the private grounds of a resident). I was given a little shack to live in complete with cockroaches the length of my hand. It was hot and the work was hard, and there was a lot of death as puppies succumbed to fatal diseases. Despite the fact I cried a lot, sickened by the tragic, unnecessary deaths, I tried to make a difference, working from the crack of dawn until midday in over 40C (104F) heat cleaning the outdoor dog pens, playing with the dogs and doing what I could to make their otherwise lonely, hopeless lives better. (I don't recall a single dog being adopted the entire time I worked there). I took photographs of them and made a calendar to raise awareness and funds, which did help a little, but not nearly enough.
While there, one of the wealthy expats who supported the shelter asked if the shelter staff knew of anyone who could house and dog/cat sit for them while they returned to Germany for several months. I got the job and was instantly upgraded from my sweltering cockroach hut to a proper air-conditioned house with a real kitchen, a proper shower, and a car of my own to drive. I felt like I had won the lottery.
With Bruno, their Belgian shephard, riding in the back seat of their car, I explored the island, which is chock full of history (fun tidbit: around 700BCE Aegina was one of the first places in the world to mint coins, changing the way people paid for items by using gold-backed currency instead of bartering with goods). While there, I went to visit the woman who ran the cat shelter, and was reunited with the kittens who had grown and were running around playing in the garden, happy, healthy and carefree.
I won't lie, it was a wonderful thing to see them, the difference between what they looked like when I handed them over, sickly and half-starved to the sleek young cats they had become. The woman told me of the terrible fate most kittens are met with in Greece, abandoned in the blistering heat, the only hope of survival they have from the kindness of strangers. After that, while out walking Bruno I kept my eyes and ears open, aware I might find more little ones discarded simply because they weren't convenient.
Once I left Greece I moved soon after to London and worked in the city. It was only when I moved many years later to Sweden that I began to come across cats in need of care again. These are the stories of the ones who have crossed my path: strays looking for food in my garden, cats caught in the crosshairs of government red-tape, and cats either adopted or fostered from the cat shelter.
One of the things which has astonished me about Sweden is despite their very public international image of being known for their humane treatment of animals and their welfare, there is also a very dark side to the Swedish mentality regarding the disposibility of cats. The below can be distressing to read, but for the purposes of this book, readers should know the reality a cat rescuer faces here.
1. Cats who belong to a home where the owner dies and there is no one left to care for it, or cats who are seized by the police from an abusive owner are not sent to the cat shelter. They become 'wards of the system' and are placed by the police into a cattery until an investigation is completed to see if there is anyone else the animals can go to (ie. a distant relative). If no one is found, then the cattery owner puts up an ad on the Swedish version of Craigslist for someone to adopt it for a small fee of 500kr. (About $50). The cat has one week to be adopted or it will be shot by the police. Yes, you read that right. The police in Sweden actually shoot the cats that are not adopted within that narrow one-week window. It is considered too expensive to use a vet to humanely put them down.
2. Swedes like to go to their cottages during the summer holidays. These are called summer houses. Although there is a strong campaign against it, there are still Swedes who think it is entertaining to have a kitten at their summer house for the summer, and then when the holidays end, they pack up and drive away, abandoning the animal completely to starvation, freezing temperatures and homelessness. Three of the cats I have rescued were most certainly abandoned this way. (I leave food outside to attract them and they come, starving and distrustful, it can take months to gain their trust enough to capture them).
3. Hunting is legal in Sweden. There is a certain minority of Swedes who will give their cat to a hunter to shoot it (vets won't put down healthy cats and the shelter won't take cats when they already have a home, people are expected to fulfill their responsibilities). However these people decide they don't want the responsibility anymore and give their cat to a hunter to kill it. I rescued one cat that had escaped while it was being shot at. It had survived for five months over a severe winter when it ended up at my back door eating the food I had left out. I only learned the truth when I found the owner by searching the cat's tattoo number on the national register. The owner arrived crying her eyes out saying her cat had been taken against her will and she had been devastated ever since. I have never seen anyone cry as hard as she did when she saw her cat again. Part of me didn't want to give the woman her cat back but she reassured me the person who had taken the cat from her was long gone. Her daughter was there as well, and she was crying quite hard too. She kept stroking the cat as her mother cradled it, saying the cat's name over and over as though she couldn't believe she was alive. A very emotional experience. One I won't ever forget.
The stories that follow have been divided into four categories. Urgent care rescues; our rescue cats; rescues we lost; and other rescues (including a hedgehog). Of the ten cats I have rescued, we lost two, although both of the cats had about half a year of good life before extreme illness took them from us. If you do not like to read rescue stories with a sad ending then please do skip part three.
Thank you for reading and I hope you will enjoy these true stories of second chances. Your thoughts and comments are warmly welcomed.
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little lives - true stories of second chancesNon-Fiction
A book about all the cats I have rescued since moving to Sweden; some have stayed with me, others have moved on. Heartwarming tales of love, hope and second chances. © E A Carter 2017 All Rights Reserved.