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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Secret sanctuary 3
Alex Salvador with one of the sanctuary's residents
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Photo by Lee Woolcock
Secret Sanctuary 2
The space used to belong to a children's nursery
Hidden away in the Raval is a space dedicated to helping abandoned cats.
Parks don’t come two a penny in downtown Barcelona, so a quiet and secluded green space in the heart of El Raval is unusual. But what makes this one unique is that it’s populated not by human beings but by cats—dozens of them.
Locals and tourists stumbling across the place stop for a moment to gaze at the cats of all shapes and sizes basking in the sun or playing with the toys donated by animal-loving friends. Given its quirkiness and ultra urban setting in the old town, the park is believed to be the only one of its kind in Spain.
El Jardinet dels Gats (Little Garden of Cats) was the brainchild of nearby resident, Maria Dolores Borras. Back in 2005, the park, a former kindergarten, lay in a tumbledown state attracting a ragtag bunch of homeless moggies. A hole-riddled fence surrounded the unkempt space. Maria appealed to the local council and after some consultation she was allowed to take on the care of the abandoned space and its feline inhabitants. Initially, a few neighbours were wary because they were worried about the possibly anti-social nature of the project—who wants a smelly tomcat as their next-door neighbour? But Maria stuck with it and the nimbys’ hearts melted when they realised her idea could actually improve the area rather than devalue it.
Alex Salvador, 35, is the park’s co-founder and Maria’s daughter. “The place looked like Dante’s Inferno,” she commented. “There were dead bodies of cats lying about and dead pigeon carcasses, which the cats had caught and then tossed aside. It was damp and dirty with raw meat and leftover food left to rot. It wasn’t nice.”
Cleaning up the area took several weeks, the hard graft being carried out by Alex, her mother and father, Paco Salvador. In 2008, the park was officially opened and its day-to-day running is shared between the mother and daughter duo.
Alex, an ex-administrator, now works full-time at the Jardinet. As a little girl, she was something of a St Francis of Assisi, taking care of cats she found in the street. Walking to school was a time-consuming business as she would stop and feed the strays on the way. They ended up with six cats in their home nearby in Raval.
“This love of animals runs in my family—my mother, my grandmother and so on,” Alex said. “Cats are special because they are so sensitive and fragile. If people see a dog loose on the street, they feel worried but this attitude doesn’t extend to a stray cat. They think the cat will be fine but this isn’t true.”
The cats in the park are by no means all alley cats. Many are domestic pets, who have fallen on hard times after being abandoned by their owners.
Despite the degree of camouflage the garden’s foliage and 20-foot high (now intact) fence offer, Alex still regularly comes to work in the morning to find cats left at the gate like discarded boots. (This is the reason that the exact location of the park isn’t given in this article, to try to avoid a fresh influx of cats.)
“People phone, they come along here, they send emails…they always find a convenient way to dispose of their animals and we have to take on the responsibility. It’s horrible, we hate it, but we have to cope. If someone says to us “if you don’t take my cat, I’ll leave her,” then of course we take the animal. A domestic cat would not survive long on the street.
“One night, someone threw a cat wrapped in a towel over the fence. It was tangled up for hours and was really traumatised.” This cat, Diana, a six-year-old ginger-and-white tabby, could have been badly injured or even killed. Instead she escaped with cuts and bruises. And a shattered sense of trust in humankind.
Diana may have lost one of her nine lives but the story has a happy ending. Later, after a spell in the garden, she was adopted by a German cat-lover and now lives with him there.
The goal of the Jardinet is to get the cats fostered (that is, placed in a temporary home) or, better still, adopted and given a permanent roof over their heads. The park acts as a kind of holding station until they are given a second chance in life. Indeed in the park’s first year alone, 300 cats were rescued and more than 200 adopted.
Sadly, the recession has impacted upon the Jardinet’s not-so-fat cats. Last summer saw fewer adoptions but a doubling in the number of abandoned pets, with holidays or a change of address often given as the excuse. So far this year only about three or four cats have been adopted each month compared with a figure nearly three times that last year.
Cat behaviourist Jordi Ferres is one of the park’s support network of people with specialist skills. Jordi, 37, learnt his craft while working with big cats, such as snow leopards and lynxes, at a sanctuary in the UK. He studied their body language and then applied his knowledge to domestic cats. Now he works his magic on a wide range of feline problems, from calming down cats who like a good old catfight to establishing physical contact with a cat that has refused to let its owner touch it.
Recently he was called to the Jardinet to attend to a beautiful yet highly-strung puss called Whitney. She was found on the street but little is known about how she got there. At first, the tortoiseshell was a hissing and spitting bundle of nerves. Alex could hardly feed her, let alone stroke her.
“Cats hate authority,” Jordi explained. “If you do something bad to them, you are two steps back. Patience is the key—cats sense it and realise there’s nothing to be scared of.”
His ‘softly, softly’ technique has already seen a big change in Whitney’s behaviour. She is a calmer cat these days, prone to fewer diva-ish tantrums, and has now found a foster home.
Other specialists working with the sanctuary include vets from S.A. Veterinaris, who offer the Jardinet a deal on their services, and Bach Flower therapist Rosa Rodriguez, who uses flower essences to help with the cats’ psychological issues.
The park also relies heavily on its 70-strong team of dedicated volunteers. Their input is essential, especially in these current stormy times when there is little money to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the cats let alone staff. In the past, the local government provided cash for the sterilisation of some of the Jardinet’s cats but even this may have now dried up.
So the team puts all its efforts into fundraising; a vegan dinner at this year’s Gràcia street festival and a tattoo event—money made from giving people tattoos went towards the Jardinet—are just two recent examples.
‘Without our help, the cats would lead a very complicated life,’ said Emi Torrado, a volunteer at the Jardinet for the last four years.
The Catalan government prides itself on being ahead of the rest of Spain when it comes to animal rights, what with the recent bullfighting ban and making it illegal to put down abandoned animals here. While the government gave the green light to the Jardinet project, however, uncertainty hangs in the air about its future and whether the animals will be able to stay at their current billet.
In a perfect world, Alex would like the Jardinet to be unnecessary. But until such a time arrives, Alex and Maria hope they can survive and keep ‘living the dream’, as they put it. Freed from the nightmare of their former lives, the cats are no doubt thinking much the same thing.
To find out more about the park and the work they do, including the foster and adoption scheme, and about how to volunteer, visit their website: www.eljardinetdelsgats.org or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
You can buy cat-related gifts from the Jardinet’s shop: Nou de la Rambla 14, baixos—it is only regularly open on the first Thursday of each month, from 6-7pm. However, you can make an appointment to go at a different time, by calling 636 382 194 between 6 and 8pm or sending them an email.
Jordi Ferres: www.educadordegats.cat
S.A. Veterinaris: www.saveterinaris.com