You may have read about a rather obscure Facebook job advert seeking someone to look after a colony of cats on Syros. For some it sounded like a dream job, all of a sudden, our island was being mentioned all over the internet, in the press and even on international TV. We were pleased Syros was described as an idyllic little island (it is!) and the media attention certainly helps raise the profile of the plight of stray cats all across Greece. One of the organisations leading the way here Syros Cats http://www.helpsyroscats.com/ . Founded by Jacky Storey, this is a not for profit organisation led by a dedicated team of volunteers helping the sick, injured and abandoned cats here on the island. They might not be the ones offering a paid-job but do appreciate all the support they get from an army of volunteers and kind donations from around the world. We caught up with Jacky Storey from Syros Cats to hear about how it all started and about the huge difference is makes.
At regular intervals, the butcher, tall and skinny with a big moustache, would pop outside for a ‘faggy’ break. In his hand he would carry the offcuts from his most recent dissections and throw them to the cats. They were well-fed, there was plenty for them all.
At the time, I had five house cats. By UK standards it seemed like an excessive number, but I soon came to realise that in Greece, five cats is nothing! My cats were well looked after by the standards of the time. More than twenty years ago, there was no vet on the island and I’d managed to get them sterilised by a visiting Scottish vet, who, operating for three days on a friends kitchen table, seemed to be going for a new world record. But there were enough cats on the island, I didn’t want to be adding to the over-population problem.
Each Sunday the shop was closed – cats were confused. Where was their food? It didn’t take long before a few clever ones found their way to my back door. Of course I fed them and they brought their friends. They were mostly a colony of grey and white cats of various shapes, sizes and ages, with lean and mean males, submissive females and a few kittens. But in spite of their regular food source, life was tough. The average lifespan of a feral cat is still only about three years. They succumb to diseases, infections and accidents and without basic intervention – they die, sometimes miserably.
Soon disaster struck. EU rules were being implemented in Greece and the butcher was required to have separate service areas, fridges and scales for poultry and other meat. In his tiny shop it was not possible and although the locals were loyal to him, he didn’t really have enough business anyway. So one Saturday, he closed his doors, defrosted his fridges, gave the cats one last feed and took a job on a building site.
The cats knew where to go. It wasn’t far. They could even continue to hang out among the same rocks, as my feeding schedule was more organised and they just had to turn up twice a day to eat. Apart from the cost, I soon realised that twenty extra cats needed more than just food. My privileged moggies had food, water, cuddles, basic medical care and a warm bed for the night. They were in superb condition.
Sterilisation was the worst problem. A vet had arrived on the island and opened a practice, but the cost for a colony of cats was prohibitive. I asked around. I didn’t get any solutions, just more problems – many other people were feeding colonies of feral cats with no way of limiting unwanted kittens. There was no help anywhere. Tougher EU laws now prevented the ‘kitchen table’ solution. Foreign vets were not allowed to operate in Greece without a licence. Charities weren’t interested and the cats were breeding happily…
I approached the local vets again. Maybe we could come up with a solution. They were concerned too and agreed to volunteer their time for two weeks each year. I would raise money for the pharmaceuticals, traps and cages. We’d find volunteers to help catch and transport the cats to the surgery and they would operate. We gave ourselves a target of one hundred cats for the first week. With expenses, equipment and the medicines I needed to raise five thousand pounds.
It turned out to be quite easy to raise the money, also easy to find some volunteers who would work in exchange for accommodation and food. But the week was hard. We sterilised around one hundred and seventy cats working flat out for many hours each day and had a party at the end to celebrate!
The programmes continued for a while, until we persuaded the local authority to get involved. Of course, they had no money, but they contributed a little in resources. Some charities were helping too. But with each programme there were a few cats left behind. Those that we caught that were disabled, sick or just too vulnerable to release back where we trapped them. I needed a hospital facility and when they were recovered, they needed new homes. In Greece everyone has enough cats, so I looked abroad, made contact with charities, worked my way around cat transport rules and started an adoption programme.
But I needed to raise funds for all of this and wanted to be able to collect donations from tourists and local businesses. That meant starting a not-for-profit organisation and coming up with things we could offer in exchange for a small donation. We decided on lavender products as being small, light and a good present for tourists to take home. We planted fifty lavender bushes, acquired a small sewing machine and asked for donations of cat-print fabrics. We now had a home craft industry as well… and thus Syros Cats was born.
The project has developed over the years, spread to the local village and other areas of the island. Social media helps, we now welcome visitors and our ‘shanty cat town’ is a bit tidier, with nice colourful gardens and hospital areas. We care for more than sixty five rescued cats and rehome about twenty each year as well as being involved with sterilisation programmes.
Of course the work is relentless, we hope one day our efforts and those of others on the island, will be successful and the numbers of cats will be controlled, colonies will be healthier and many locals and visitors will donate to our cause. Our mission statement is to reduce the suffering of feral cats on the island, raise awareness and educate the young.
It’s a tall order, but we continue to try…
If you would like to make a donation to Syros Cats follow the link on our Website.