Jennifer Pulling’s story is far from the usual tale of romance and renovation, laced with amusing anecdotes about restoring a local palazzo. In her book, The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue, the journalist and author relates how she decided to undertake the more heart-rending task of trying to improve the welfare of Taormina’s cat population. With little prior experience, she set up a charity, recruited helpers and negotiated the local paper trail. Against the odds, and in the face of more than one setback, she has had considerable success. As a passionate defender of animal rights, Jennifer tells us her thoughts and ideas in the following frank interview.
Prior to your interest in the island’s feline population, can you tell us what first drew you to Sicily?
When I was very young I discovered Italy by train. My view was that of the romantic. I remember the first place I visited, Florence. When I stood on the Piazza Michelangelo and gazed down onto that city of ochre and terracotta, I knew there was no turning back, Italy had always been there, waiting for me and I was really only happy when on the move. Those trains took me further and further south on a voyage of self-discovery, but nowhere influenced me as profoundly as Sicily. At first it was the landscapes and dark storyline of the film The Godfather that drew me, then the ‘corner of paradise’ image evoked by a fellow journalist. But it wasn’t until I crossed the straits of Messina and the light changed from grey to purple, purple to rose and the tip of the sun flamed over the sea, I gazed at deserted beaches where gold tipped waves broke over the shore…and fell in love with the island. What I did not bargain for was Sicily’s conflict of cultures nor its indifference towards animals. That came later.
Reading your book, it is clear that one particular incident sparked your active pursuit of a better life for Sicily’s cats. What happened and how did it change your life?
Almost fourteen years ago, I found myself prowling the night-time streets of a small Sicilian town with a torch and a humane cat trap. The day had begun with companion, Andrew, and I deciding to visit Castelmola for a glass of the famous local wine. It ended with us finding a badly injured cat. Passersby took no notice and I knew I had to help her. I managed to contact a vet who treated her before she recovered in my apartment for several weeks. During that time I became attached to Lizzie (I’d called her Lizzie) but I finally had to return her to her colony in Castelmola. The experience had altered me, and I was beginning to view Sicily in a far less romantic light. However, I felt happy she was restored and able to resume her feline life. Imagine my horror when, on my return to Sicily, a few months later, I learned Lizzie and her colony had been poisoned. My grief turned to anger but then determination to try to help these abused felines. With no previous experience, I created my project, Catsnip, and set about raising funds. Several charities and animal drugs companies supported me. This enabled me to organise my first team of vets and helpers and to spend a week in Taormina neutering and treating the cats. I didn’t know at the time but I was to embark on a mission that continues to this day. The experience with Lizzie was my epiphany and opened my eyes to the shadow side of Sicily. From a romantic traveler I became a dedicated defender of feral cats.
What is the role of the local gattara?
The word is used to describe a woman (usually a woman but sometimes a man) who feeds and takes care of a colony of cats. Historically, a gattara, or cat lady, is a middle aged or elderly woman and sometimes to the uninitiated, similar to a bag lady. This certainly wasn’t the case with the beautiful actress, Anna Magnani who used to feed Roman cats when she was appearing in the theatre nearby. Some people joke about them, sneering that the animals are a child substitute. They don’t recognise the often-frail woman, dragging her basket on wheels, heavy with cat food towards ‘her’ colony. Maria, who features in my book, had risked the ridicule of her neighbours and sacrificed her time and money to their daily feeding. Cat ladies play an important role in the survival of feral cats, giving them the only affection and care they are likely to receive in their tough lives and they are often my first port of call when I am identifying colonies for possible help.
Can you describe your first foray into the world of ‘clandestine’ cat neutering?
In June 2003, I prepared to leave England for my first session of catch/neuter/return. Boot sales had yielded a public that wanted something for nothing, but some charities and drug companies had been generous and Catsnip was ready to go. I packed all my veterinary supplies including Ketamin into a very large brown parcel. My ignorance was a blessing at that time, as I had no idea of the nature of that drug. In fact, I sailed through both Gatwick and Catania airports without problems, probably a very different story today! To my relief, my order of traps and cages, which had travelled by road from England, turned up the next day. My German gattara friend, Elke, had persuaded a friend to lend us her summerhouse and we were soon busy setting up a makeshift ‘surgery’ before the arrival of Frankie, our American vet. He worked swiftly and surely and our problem was keeping up the supply of cats. Every morning, Elke and I went off with the traps to locate cat colonies. The ferals were wary but then curiosity got the better of them. We would rush back to the summerhouse to unload them before starting all over again. We were terrified someone would report us to the police for we were doing something that flouted Sicilian bureaucracy, which involves mountains of paperwork and so-called laws never carried out. All this was exacerbated by two unpleasant traits in the Sicilian character: envy and craftiness, a readiness to inform on anything that might be another’s success. Nevertheless, we had neutered over a hundred cats before a drama erupted. Nino came over from his trattoria. He brought a large handsome cat and asked for her to be ‘done.’ Was she feral? Of course. We couldn’t understand why he was so anxious to collect her. Later, he called: ‘I’m really worried. I think the cat’s dying. I’ll call the local vet’. Panic! If a private vet believed, theoretically, we were taking money out of his pocket we would be reported. Frankie checked the cat out. ‘It wasn’t feral,’ he reported, ‘it is his wife’s cat. She’s returning from holiday soon and Nino is panicking.’ Fortunately, the cat recovered well from the anesthetic and was fine. On future trips we would make sure we had written permission.
The issue of humanely controlling feral cat populations is not just confined to Sicily. Why is neutering so important?
Studies show that the trap/neuter/return practice improves the lives of feral cats; female cats and their kittens often suffer debilitating illness due to constant reproduction. It develops their relationship with the people who live near them and, over time, decreases the size of colonies. Removing cats from an area by killing or relocating them is cruel and pointless though city governments have continued this futile approach for decades. But the evidence proves that catch and kill will not permanently clear an area of cats. What it does do is open up the habitat to an influx of new cats, either from neighbouring territories, or born from survivors. This is a natural phenomenon known as the ‘vacuum effect’ when, each time cats are removed, the population will rebound, perpetuating an inhumane and endless cycle of trapping and killing. TNR is the only solution with long lasting results. It is a tragedy that this is not universally recognised.
What obstacles did you face in setting up your charity, Catsnip?
So many that, sometimes, I wonder how I ever overcame them, at all. The major one revolved around Sicilian bureaucracy, which appeared to be designed to impede every step I took. As one example, the public sector of the veterinary service, ASL, is supposedly responsible for the neutering of feral cats. But it does little if anything about it. The Town Hall agrees it is necessary, but money never seems to get where it should. If a well-meaning vet ventures to fill in all the request forms, it may still take months to effect anything. To set up as a private vet one must conform to a tome of rules before the certificate can be issued. This appears to me to be designed to put off all but the most committed and to cultivate the fa niente philosophy of this island. Over the years, I have campaigned for free passage of foreign vets into Sicily, which would facilitate a neutering programme, but the paper churning continues to obstruct that permesso. At one point, I even got as far as being promised a set of rooms in Taormina where a permanent Catsnip centre might have been set up. I signed the contract… and never heard another word about it. Later on, when my Sicilian vet attempted to help a tourist to bring a cat from Sicily to England, his application for a Pet Passport was met with the reply that there were none available on the island. It was only when he discovered a former colleague in the right place that this was obtained. I have encountered attitudes ranging from indifference to downright hostility: parents instructing their children, ‘keep away from that cat you will get a disease,’ comments that I am crazy to the accusation, ‘you are a cat murderer.’
In addition to obstacles, you were also met with a great deal of help and kindness, both from islanders and foreigners. Can you give us some examples?
In my experience, there is always a balance of black and white when it comes to issues like animal welfare. I have been fortunate to meet some wonderful people in Sicily who care deeply about cats and their welfare. I first met Elke, as my landlady, and later discovered she was a gattara supreme. A German woman who has lived long on the island, she has devoted a good deal of her later life to cats. Her house on the cliffs above beautiful Isola Bella is a haven for some forty felines. Here they have shelter and food and Elke makes sure they are all neutered and treated. Throughout the years she has been a source of strength and encouragement. Genoveffa, unfortunately no longer with us, gave me a safe haven from the stress of Catsnip and allowed me to share in her care of a small and raggedy colony. Dorothea Fritz, the legendary vet who works in Naples, gave me her time and skills and with her team spent two weeks on intensive neutering programmes. Valeria, Antonio and Vittorina offered my team unforgettable hospitality in Mascali, and shared the work of the sanctuary Arca. I am also indebted to Salvatore La Manna, a Sicilian vet in a million, who is doing so much valuable work with ferals and has always been on hand whenever I have sent tourists to him for help and advice.
Was it difficult not to get too emotionally involved in individual cases?
Extremely difficult. As any vet will tell you, he or she has to learn to buffer their emotional response to every animal patient that enters their surgery or they will experience burnout. I have tried to follow Elke’s advice when she told me: ‘You have to be strong to do this work’. However there have been many occasions when I have broken my heart. I became very attached to Lizzie during the weeks I cared for her in my apartment. I had fought to save her life with the hope that she would be enabled to continue to live it in peace. I was devastated when I discovered she had been poisoned.
Another case was the tiny kitten Nino put into my arms, one evening. I looked into that milky gaze and was seized with such compassion for this little life. I fought to save her and my failure made the world a grey place for weeks afterwards. The abandoned Great Dane, brought to our team, looking like a victim of a death camp, shook me profoundly and that image remains with me today. As I have written in my book, I am very sensitive and was not really cut out to do this work. Listening to the plaintive cries of trapped cats that had no idea we were doing it for their own good, at times, I even doubted our intervention. Fourteen years later, my response is still emotional when any tourist sends me news of a suffering cat. But perhaps this is what drives me. As long as I feel passionately about these felines I shall continue to try to help them.
It seems your website gets many messages from people wishing to help a feral cat in distress. What is your customary advice?
The welfare of these feral animals is paramount and above human feelings, a question of doing what is best for them rather than being sentimental. Even if they are lucky and receive some first aid, their ultimate fate will be to survive on their own. You have to decide whether this might cause them distress and the danger of not being able to defend themselves. Eye disease is rife among kittens in Sicily. If it isn’t treated in time it ultimately leads to blindness, but it is easily cured with Pensulvit, which tourists can buy from the pharmacist. The question has to be asked: is it right to allow these small creatures to struggle for an existence in their feral world, if there is not an assured source of regular food? They may not be able to scavenge and therefore die a miserable death.
Feral colonies are usually made up of groups of related females and the size of the colony is directly related to the availability of food, water and shelter. Cats are extremely resourceful creatures and can adapt to many different habitats.
Those within the colony recognise each other by sharing their scent through rubbing against each other. Although they appear close, they are not completely reliant upon the others and will hunt and eat alone. If an unfamiliar cat intrudes on their territory, they will soon see it off. After neutering, a feral cat should be released back into its territory as quickly as possible – this is so the cat does not lose the communal scent and end up being rejected by other cats in the colony.
Only in rare circumstances should you remove a cat from its colony or indeed relocate the entire colony. Relocation of feral cats is extremely stressful for them, as they become very dependent on the familiarity of their own environment. Neither should they be released just anywhere. An appropriate habitat needs to be found and the cats require a period of adjustment while they learn where they can find food and shelter. Most often, there is no reason to remove them from their habitats. Ferals become well adapted to their territory and can live safely and contentedly in alleyways, parking lots, vacant lots, backyards, and a host of other locations – urban, suburban, and rural.
It is really not advisable to try to socialise a grown feral cat. If you are prepared to devote time and attention, however, you can work with young feral kittens and persuade them to become affectionate and loving companions. It’s not something that will happen overnight but can be a rewarding experience. When tourists contact me for help with a small and apparently lost kitten my first question is always: ‘Are you certain the mother isn’t around?’ The kitten may have simply strayed or the mother is keeping herself from view. It is also a good idea to check whether the cats are being fed by a gattara, a cat lady in case she feels some sense of ownership of them. Although no one actually possesses a feral cat it is courtesy to check with the gattara and tell her what you intend to do rather than taking command. Often she will be pleased that someone else is prepared to pay for treatment.
From time to time, the local authorities in tourist towns such as Taormina try to make it an offence to feed feral cats. In my experience I have never found an enforcement of fines. Just make sure you clean up any leftover scraps and wash plates or bowls, important in a hot climate. Cats are clean creatures: it is we humans who, by leaving the site messy give them the reputation of being ‘dirty’.
Never, under any circumstances give a cat milk to drink. Felines are lactose intolerant and it will give them diarrhoea. Water is their natural and best drink.
It is very difficult to catch a feral cat without a trap they will scratch and bite to evade capture and a bite from a cat can be very nasty indeed. If you are visiting Sicily, you may be lucky in finding someone who has one of these humane traps. They are simple to set with food placed at the far end, as the cat enters and moves forward, a spring mechanism is released and shuts the door. Naturally, these feral cats resent being captured and put up a lot of fuss. Always cover the trap or cage with an old towel or small blanket, to shut out light and quieten the captive and get them to the vet as speedily as possible.
Several times their emails have ended with ‘And I’ve fallen in love with her and would like to bring her back to the UK.’ At that point I hold up my hand and say: that is a knee jerk reaction. You are on holiday and probably not thinking in the rational way you might at home. Look at the facts and think it through. The process of bringing an animal back to the UK while as not as lengthy as it used to be is a big undertaking both in terms of time and money. But as Sadie proved, as I outline in the book, with love and determination it can be done.
Can you give us a progress report? Do you have any plans to widen your activities from the Taormina, Letojanni area?
As I have already mentioned, the barriers erected by the Sicilian system have made it impossible to establish a permanent, or even temporary, location from where I could continue to carry out regular veterinary visits and neutering sessions. Since that time, Catsnip has continued to support financially many cat colonies in various parts of Sicily. I liaise with the national animal welfare group OIPA and my contact there has helped many tourists to resolve the problem of distressed cats (and dogs). In 2015 several tourists in western Sicily contacted me and we were able to help them, including bringing felines to England. I am urgently working on an adoption at distance project and plan more educational visits including one with my British vet, to demonstrate more modern surgical procedures. My dream, of course, is to raise enough money to establish a permanent sanctuary and initiate an educational and TNR policy.
Tell us about your work with Sicilian school children?
As time went by I realised that the root of the problem lay in ignorance of animals as sentient beings. Where better place to start putting this right but with children? Using the Dogs Trust publication for Romania model, I planned a simple, illustrated booklet and persuaded an Italian friend to translate it. For some time now, I had contributed articles to the little magazine, Animals Voice, with its readership of animal lovers. The editorial team loved my idea. ‘We take wild life into schools and talk to the children about their welfare. Yes, we’ll sponsor your booklet.’ Off I went to the printers. That was how I found myself in a surreal situation, standing in the classroom of a Sicilian school, talking to the children about cats. I could hardly hear myself speak. Those kids might be well-behaved under the eye of their teachers, but my appearance was treated as an entertainment. Hands fluttered, they all wanted to speak at once. Lovely, innocent children who had yet to absorb their parents’ mistrust of animals. Over that week, I visited five schools. At one where I had distributed fifty booklets, the children crowded round me. ‘Signora, please will you sign it?’ ‘And mine, and mine!’ Talk about being a celebrity for five minutes. I prayed some of my words had sunk in.
If people want to help your charity, how can they do so?
There are several ways in which they can help and this doesn’t always involve money. Having said that, the only way I can continue with the work of Catsnip is via donation. My website www.catsnip.org.uk has a link to Shareagift or I can send dedicated bank details. It is important for anyone who is concerned about the current attitude toward animals, or, indeed, any specific case of cruelty, to write to the Italian Tourist Office and tell them you will boycott the island unless these issues are redressed. Sicily exists to a greater extent on tourism and this is where it could hit hard. Please also read and talk about my book: the Great Sicilian Cat Rescue which was written not only to arouse awareness of Sicily’s attitude toward animals but that of many other locations in the Mediterranean and beyond.
Finally, you quote The Leopard in your text – after all your experiences do you think Lampedusa’s vision of a stubbornly unalterable Sicily is still as applicable today or do you see signs of change?
Sadly I don’t think the leopard can truly change its spots. Yes, young Sicilians are learning to speak English and trying to break loose from the old bonds. But the Family continues to exert its influence and there is many a Mummy’s boy. Nepotism remains a very real fact of life in a country where raccomandazione rather than meritocracy often results in the apathy Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of. There are pockets of people who care deeply about animals and who do their very best for them: I have been cheered to discover organisations like ENPA and OIPA and groups of young people but, as my Sicilian vet has said: ‘The enormous lessons I have learned is that more than fifty per cent of animal owners in Sicily, are ignorant and a threat to their animals because, at the first hurdle, particularly economic, they are ready to abandon them. It needs a vet’s presence in schools to teach children that animals merit respect: they are not toys that one can throw away, they are living beings that need caring for, even if it turns out to be expensive. Thus, those who know they can’t afford it should never take on an animal. There is nothing left for me but to fight this infinite ignorance in order to defend these defenceless animals from the cruel hands of men who are uncivilized and egoistic.’