When visiting the historic areas of San Juan, Puerto Rico, you can’t help but notice cats. Strolling the blue brick roads through historic homes as colorful as a set of paints on an artist’s palette, many of the fanciful doorways contain contentedly sleeping cats. On our first visit to Puerto Rico we even saw several local people herding a cat down the sidewalk. I have no idea where they were going or why they wanted to herd a cat, but it was an interesting sight to see.
Even some of the shops, closed for business at the time with doors of iron bars to keep people out, had cats walking in right through the bars to make themselves at home. Perhaps they belonged to the owners of the shops, but then again maybe it just looked like a comfortable place for a snooze.
Not all of the cats of old San Juan live the life of an adored pet though. Down on the Paseo del Morro, an ancient walkway leading to Castillo San Felipe del Morro – one of the town’s historic forts – cats live a different life altogether.
These cats are strays, some discarded pets and others feral. Cats have lived around the paseo as long as people can remember. It is said that the ancestors of the feral cats date all the way back to the Spanish ships that first came to the island centuries ago. On our second visit to Puerto Rico we walked along the paseo and saw some of its resident cats.
Because Puerto Rico is a US territory, and the historic forts belong to the National Park system, the US National Parks manage those forts, and the paseo that leads to one of them as well. In 2004 the area was overrun with hundreds of cats, not all of them in good health. The National Parks, under pressure from tourism, decided to exterminate the cats by any means possible.
Some local people felt that exterminating cats who were as much a part of the history of the city as the walls and castles was very wrong. Or that indiscriminately exterminating cats was wrong under any circumstance. They came to the rescue and decided to save the cats. With both national and international support backing them, they eventually got the Park Service to agree to let them use trap, neuter and release to control the cat population. Thus Save A Gat0 was born.
Save A Gato is an organization of volunteers. Over the years, they have greatly reduced the population of stray cats through their program of trap, neuter, and release of unadoptable cats, and finding homes for adoptable ones.
Some unhealthy cats did get euthanized as the program initially got underway, but the cat colony was spared from total extinction. In addition to reducing the population of stray cats roaming old San Juan, Save A Gato has made life much easier for the ones that are left. Now instead of sickly cats having to scrounge up whatever food they can hunt or find, healthy cats visit feeding stations tended to by Save A Gato volunteers. In addition to neutering, Save A Gato also vaccinates the cats when they trap them.
Cats that are friendly enough to get close to are safe to pet. The true ferals won’t let people near them. Cat-loving tourists can enjoy a visit with these cats as they walk along the paseo or take a stroll through town.
Save A Gato is an entirely voluntary organization and survives solely on donations. If you would like to learn more about Save A Gato, or contribute to the care and feeding of San Juan’s feline residents, please visit Save A Gato’s website or facebook page.