By Jaime Velazquez in Madrid
It’s an empty plot in the middle of brick-and-concrete affordable housing blocks in a working-class neighbourhood of Madrid.
It is now used as a parking lot and a cemetery for broken cars that aren’t worth repairing.
The grass grows high inside the fenced yards and plastic hangs from a tree like a torn sail of a shipwreck.
It seems quiet, but when Josefina Gutierrez, a pensioner housewife in her sixties, arrives with her big plastic bag, it turns out to be full of life.
It is supper time and tiny heads with pointed ears start to show up from behind the car wheels, on top of the branches and the thick weeds.
This is one of the 400 feral cat colonies in the Madrid metropolitan area. These ten cats that now start roaming around the open concrete space are lucky to have Miss Gutierrez.
She calls out their names. Shakira, Piqué, La Mami, Toñi, Pablo, Don Fú, Espiguete…
“Shakira and Piqué are the stars of the colony. Shakira is the spoiled little girl, and Piqué is the alpha male”, she tells Euronews while pulling out plastic trays from her bag and filling them up with a mix of dry and moist cat food.
Josefina has built them shelters – tiny boxes hidden under old roof tiles next to the fenced tree. She feeds them every day and tries to keep the plot free of dirt and rubbish. When they get sick, she gives them antibiotics, and when it is due, they also get their deworming pills.
Miss Gutierrez is one of the 150 permit holders with a license to feed cats. Madrid City Council is looking for volunteers to look after its cat colonies, as a new approach aimed at creating feline sustainable communities and sparing the animals from being put down.
An estimated 14,000 cats and dogs are killed every year in Spain after being captured by municipal services and taken to the pound, according to the Affinity Foundation report 2016. Only four out of ten animals that arrive in the shelter find an adoptive family. And for feral cats, the odds are even lower.
“These are feral cats, stray animals, so it is really difficult for them to get used to a house. If you put them inside, they would become crazy”, Josefina says.
When she arrived in the neighbourhood, she found the animals living in very poor conditions.
“An old lady was looking after them, but the animals were starving and the plot was full of dirt. That’s why I decided to look after them”.
Having an official permit for the city council is making Josefina’s task easier, especially when dealing with neighbours because, believe it or not, not everybody finds stray cats adorable. Finding them poisoned is one of her biggest fears.
“I try not to make them very social, because not everybody loves cats, and if they get too close, it might be dangerous for them,” she recognises.
“Once I came across a man who was throwing them stones. He complained there was a lot of cats around, because they were being fed. But things changed when I showed him my license and told him that I had been appointed by the council to look after them”.
Since the colony has been controlled, cohabitation between cats and neighbours has improved dramatically.
“I managed to convince them that there was nothing wrong with the cats, that I would sterilise them, that I would give them only canned cat food, and I would never feed them leftovers like fish… Then, they started to accept them”.
A tiny cut in their ears shows that Josefina’s cats have been already neutered. Caretakers are requested to sterilise all their cats, and although Madrid City Council is starting to help with the cost, most of them do it at their own expense.
“It may sound crazy, but monthly I can spend over 200 euros, because you have to sterilise them, you have to deworm them so you have to give them pills. And also if one of them gets sick, you have to buy them antibiotics,” Josefina said.
Madrid City Council started this scheme a year ago in cooperation with the Society for the Protection of Animals and Plants in Madrid and so far thousands of cats have been microchipped and sterilised.
“In the past, authorities would capture the cats and put them down. This measure has proved to be inefficient. Councils like Madrid are now using a more effective solution which is to sterilise them so that there are fewer of them and the population is controlled”, said Arancha Sanz, a lawyer with the Society for the Protection of Animals and Plants in Madrid.
Moreover, Sanz argues, “there are veterinary studies that suggest controlled cat colonies don’t pose any risk for public health.
“There are different ways to assure cohabitation with neighbours. For example, Rome is known for its cat colonies and they have even become a tourist attraction.”
Volunteers can apply for cat licenses online and must attend a one-day course on procedures to be followed.