Illustration by Jennifer Saura
When the subject of stray cats in Barcelona comes up, there’s usually someone who will say: “Save yourself the trouble and leave it to the crazy old lady who lives in your building, she’s got nothing better to do with her time.”
The stray cat problem, when talked about at all, is dismissed as a trivial matter of concern. The reality is that the city’s growing cat population, and proactive cat lovers, are rapidly changing the dynamics of the issue. Until recently, the increasing number of felines roaming the city was camouflaged by the rubbish littering the kerbside and the purr of traffic blanketed their cries. But their presence has become more noticeable, and their numbers seem to be increasing. Across a wide swath of neighbourhoods, the city’s residents are organising to help the abandoned cats of Barcelona.
Driving this movement are the grass-roots groups that have sprung up at the neighbourhood level. In the early days—the days of the individuals who went out to feed the cats on their own—it was difficult to make any kind of significant impact. Animal lovers, moved by pity, would go out and feed the strays that gathered in their interior patios and nearby parks, but they knew that they were only perpetuating the homeless cat problem—now these people are joining together and solving it. There are those who team up within their communities, and others who are part of larger organisations, but all of them have one thing in common: their dedication to cats.
Three years ago, Rosa Sánchez started working with Gats Urbans, a group of volunteers that operate out of Montjuïc, after she came across an abandoned litter of cats near her home. Gats Urbans is representative of the small-scale groups that have sprouted up in the last two or three years all over the city—assemblages of residents that aim to capture, neuter and then return cats back to the habitat where they were found.
These organisations attempt to find new homes for the tame cats that have been abandoned, and release the wild ones back into the city from which they came. These efforts have been aided by a growing sense of the problem, according to Sánchez. “There is a progressive awareness of the problem of what to do with the animals of the city among citizens. It’s snowballing, and as the ball rolls it gathers more people, more people all the time.”
Larger groups, with more resources at their disposal, are also focusing on building a more habitable environment for the stray cats that live in the city. Progat, a charity started 10 years ago by Montserrat Casulleras, runs sterilisation programmes and keeps cats fed by installing fixed food containers in specified parts of Barcelona. The latter effort effectively reduces the waste and odour caused by people throwing cats scraps on the street side, or leaving food for them in interior patios.
The containers are rectangular plastic and metal bins that function like most birdfeeders—horizontally oriented, they dispense a small amount of dry food from an opening at the base and are easily refillable. Such installations are a simple yet essential step, because food left out that goes uneaten may spoil, attracting much more than the intended cat population, which can, in turn, lead to angry neighbours and deadly consequences. Neighbours have been known to poison and even shoot at stray cats. “The best way to protect the cats is to make them invisible,” said Casulleras.
Sánchez, who was feeding cats near where she worked in Les Corts, can attest to instances of such hostility. “A neighbour was bothered because people were throwing food to the cats, so he poisoned the cats’ food. Nothing happened because I heard him talking and realised the food had been poisoned… but I heard the neighbour saying, ‘I’m going to kill the cats because I don’t like them, I don’t like the food.’”
While making the cats less visible may decrease problems with angry neighbours, these organisations have had to face threatening governmental ordinances. In 2003, the city implemented the Law for Animal Protection, a progressive ordinance that forbids euthanising abandoned pets, a clear improvement on former policies of lethal injection. Since then, the city claims to have kept alive the great majority of stray cats (and dogs). However, there is still much debate as to the ability of the city council to follow new practices, and with these doubts the question of how to most effectively handle the large population of strays in the city has become even more contentious. On one side are citizens behind groups like Gats Urbans and Progat who foster a city environment in which human and animal can live together; on the other are those who prefer to exterminate what they see as a filthy nuisance.
Historically, the priority of government-funded organisations like El Centre d’Acollida d’Animals de Companyia de Barcelona (CAAC, which manages Barcelona’s animal refuges) has not been keeping animals alive—until recently at these shelters, animals from the street were taken in and if a home was not found for them, they were ultimately put down. On May 17th, 2006, a vehement demonstration was held in Plaça Sant Jaume, where hundreds of protestors came together to demonstrate against the exterminations taking place in CAAC animal centres. More than two dozen entities signed a statement calling for measures to be taken against the slaughter of animals, and demanding the establishment of an Office for the Protection of Animals in Barcelona.
This protest effectively brought attention to what demonstrators viewed as unjust practises going on behind the closed walls of the CAAC; they argued that animals don’t deserve to go to public centres where they will be put down. As a result of the growing public pressure to change animal legislation, Article 11 of the Animal Protection Laws came into effect in 2007. It forbids sacrificing abandoned pets, seemingly ending the killings in government-funded centres. Public administrations are amending their policies, turning instead to an official animal adoption campaign.
Despite these reforms, animal shelters like the CAAC are run on limited funding. It seems unlikely that they can house every stray they capture until they find it a new home; they simply don’t have the space or funds. For these reasons, many, like Rosa Sánchez, have their doubts. “The centres give captured animals some time, just in case someone asks for them.If not, they’re probably going to be killed.”
Whether or not the CAAC’s policies toward cats changes completely, the community movements speak to the fact that the public perception of animal rights is in a state of transition. For the first time in Barcelona, people are really coming together to improve conditions for cats.
“You don’t just have crazy old ladies feeding the cats like 15 or 20 years ago,” said Sánchez. “The way of thinking has changed a lot in these past years.”