Tag Archives: cats

The Cats of Whiddy Island

[Editor’s note: this story refers to the trip I wrote about at length here and also describes the events during which this photo was taken.- RA.]

The cats came running as soon as the ferry arrived at the pier. We followed our guide toward the Bank House, tiny Whiddy Island’s main – make that only – pub and hub, and two wild, furry little characters begged for pets and scritches. I was over the moon. I had been in Ireland a few days and hadn’t seen a cat yet. Sheep, cows, seals, eagles, chickens, horses, donkeys and dogs, yes. And yes, those beasties made this animal-lover happy, but cats are special. Because my name is Rondi and I am a cat lady.

When I lived in Istanbul I would have to factor in at least an extra half hour for my morning trek to work, to accommodate all the time spent stopping to cuddle local cats. At a kibbutz in Israel I took fish from the breakfast buffet and fed it to the feral colony outside. When I visit Paris, I make my way to Montmartre Cemetery to see the feral colony that sleep on Truffaut and Stendhal’s tombs. When I visit Rome, I hightail it to the Protestant Cemetery and commune with the cats who contemplate life at Keats’ grave and who nap on top of Gramsci’s eternal resting place.

Rome, of course, has plenty of feline activity, including the famous shelter which borders the Roman ruins near Torre Argentina. The great and glamorous Anna Magnani used to feed the cats in the area when she was performing at the Teatro Argentina, long before the creation of the current shelter.

One would assume that Magnani’s status as a ‘gattara’ – the Italian term for cat lady – would put to rest the lie that all cat ladies are dowdy old maids, but it is a stereotype that persists. A 1950s rom-com set in Rome features a scene that gives the stereotype cinematic life: in 1954’s Three Coins in the Fountain, Dorothy McGuire – in love with a seemingly oblivious Clifton Webb – is given a kitten by her maid, Louisa. “I am worried about you being alone, Signorina,” says Louisa, explaining that her sister is a spinster who talks to her many cats “from morning to night.”

Mamma mia!

Dorothy McGuire decides this will not be her fate. “It hasn’t come to that yet,” she says to the kitten. “You’re dear and small, but I’m not going to turn to you out of loneliness.”

I’ve never turned to a cat out of loneliness. I just find they are frequently better company than humans, and like Ernest Hemingway, I believe that one cat always leads to another. I’m not a spinster and I am (mostly) not dowdy, though I suspect I looked mighty dowdy during my recent trip to Ireland. I packed light as I can’t bear checking bags – too much lost luggage in my past – which meant my fellow travelers saw me in the same clothes more than they might have liked. It also meant that I neglected to bring my flat-iron. In other words, crazy-haired woman steps off the pier onto the soil of Whiddy Island and runs with delight into the paws of a couple of scruffy Irish cats.

And there began a tale. Travel they say, opens your mind to different peoples and cultures. It can and sometimes does, though I’ve often found it merely confirms what you already know. If it’s effective, it opens your mind to a bit of how you can be when you’re not at your best, to some of your less attractive traits. This is what happened to me on Whiddy Island.

Whiddy is a wee spot (5.6 kilometres long and 2.4 kilometres wide) off the coast of County Cork, Ireland. Ferries leave Bantry pier for Whiddy several times a day in summer months and less frequently the rest of the year. The island has a permanent human population of 22, many of whom speak Irish and an animal population of more than 22, each of whom may or may not speak Irish.

Two of the latter were those cats who came running. One was orange and white, the other a calico/tortoiseshell mix, so I knew she was a female. They were both old and thin, both highly affectionate and trusting, both desperate for every bit of contact the ferry full of tourists could give them. And both had dirty coats and ears that looked either frost-bitten or as if they had been torn during a street scrap. I wondered how much care they were getting. I don’t expect ferals, strays or even old cats to look as plump and happy as younger, indoor cats, but I was alarmed by their gritty coats and bony frames.

The more time I spent with the female – “the little old lady” was how I began to think of her — the more upset I got. She was having trouble walking, and her breathing sounded raspy. I know that rural life is different than urban life – for humans and non-human animals alike — but I was worried. I hoped my tone was caring, but in retrospect I think it far more likely to have been accusatory. Why, I asked our tour guide, aren’t they being fed? These cats are helping control the mouse and rat population; people should be grateful.

(Little Old Lady)
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(Orange and White Lad)
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What I didn’t mention was that I have worked for years for a cat rescue in Toronto and have seen cats in worse shape, as I had seen cats in worse shape in Istanbul. But the difference in both cases was that in Toronto and Istanbul, I could do something. I felt powerless in Ireland, and frustration compounded my concern.

As we continued our tour of the island, I kept wondering whether I could commandeer a boat and take the cats to the mainland for a veterinary visit. I couldn’t, and as we left, I saw the little old lady and her orange and white friend sitting in the tall grass, sunning themselves. I had to admit they looked contented. Still, our wonderful guide promised to do what she could to investigate, and if needed, help.

Back in Canada, I downloaded my photographs. Calmly looking at images allowed me to see what I had missed in the frenzy of activity on the island: both cats had tipped left ears, rather than what I had initially thought (though the calico had a ragged right ear, as well). Ear-tips are an international sign of TNR, or trap/neuter/return, indicating that feral and stray cats have been spayed or neutered. Relief flooded in, along with some embarrassment. I don’t think it was wrong of me to have been upset, or to have intervened. Too many ignore animal suffering. But I had ascribed negligence, or worse, where there was none. I had made assumptions without finding answers. Casting blame first is not helpful. Where there is doubt let me sow faith; where there is darkness, let me sow light, as the prayer of St. Francis – patron saint of the animals — says.

I found, through the wonders of the internets, the rescue group responsible for the area. I discovered that the Whiddy cats were fed by locals and given as much care as possible, considering the geographic limitations of island life. I struck up an online conversation with one of the rescue’s volunteers and learned that the little old lady was simply that – a very old lady no longer in the bloom of her youth.

A few days later a message from my tour guide – who had indeed reached out for help and information about the cats of Whiddy — brought sad news: my calico friend had died peacefully shortly after our visit. I’m grateful to have met her and to have learned from her. May she rest in peace and may she cuddle up for eternity on the lap of Anna Magnani.

(Little Old Lady Enjoying the Sun)
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(Orange and White Lad in the Tall Grass)
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V.S. Naipaul, RIP

He wrote four masterpieces: A House for Mr. Biswas; Among the Believers; Guerrillas; Miguel Street. That is many more masterpieces than many of us will write. He was, apparently, a cantankerous fellow, but what I loved most about him was this interview he gave about his kitty (oddly, the kitty is not mentioned in the headline). He understood the love of a cat. His feelings about Augustus are the feelings I had (and have) for all the cats of my life.

Ireland

Dear readers, I am back from a wonderful trip to Ireland, about which I will be writing here (and in other places) anon. I wanted to start with a picture of myself taken on Whiddy Island, Ireland. I rarely post — and even more rarely appreciate — pictures of myself. But I truly like this photo, because I think it sums me up in a frame. I will write more about this photo later, and in particular this cat, but for now I would just like to thank my colleague Hermann Low for taking and sending it. Danke.

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Montmartre Cemetery

See below a kitty at Paris’ Montmartre Cemetery. Photo taken by me about a month ago. I loved how kitty just needed a sip and found some water (it had been raining a fair bit) that had collected in someone’s grave. Cats gotta cat. I took many more photos of the colony at the cemetery, which I will post later — have already posted some at my National Geographic page. (Regular readers of this blog will remember the cats of Rome’s Protestant Cemetery here, here and here.)
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Charles Bukowski, Cat Guy

Bukowski wrote this lovely poem about (his) cats:

My Cats

I know. I know.
they are limited, have different
needs and
concerns.

but I watch and learn from them.
I like the little they know,
which is so
much.

they complain but never
worry,
they walk with a surprising dignity.
they sleep with a direct simplicity that
humans just can’t
understand.

their eyes are more
beautiful than our eyes.
and they can sleep 20 hours
a day
without
hesitation or
remorse.

when I am feeling
low
all I have to do is
watch my cats
and my
courage
returns.

I study these
creatures.

they are my
teachers.

The Feline Formerly Known as Patches

Very happy to report that my portrait of Patches (now, “Richard”) was selected to be put on display in the front window of Toronto’s Arts Market during the first two weeks of August to help promote volunteering (and specifically, volunteering for Annex Cat Rescue). Richard was an outdoor cat for years – nearly 14 – and now has found a home in which to live out his retirement. He is an FIV+ cat and considered ‘semi-feral,’ making me all the more delighted that from here on in he will know only love and comfort.
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Cemetery Cats: Rome

There is a managed colony of stray and feral cats living in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery. I think they like being near the pyramid: reminds them of when they were gods. I have many pics of them, including some here at my Flickr page (if this is not public, forgive me) and here at my National Geographic page (it definitely is public). I’ll start with a few and post more in days to come.

Long-haired beauty.

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Calico beauty (if you look at my old photos from the links above, you will see that this kitty has been thriving at the cemetery for a few years).

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Kitty on a tomb, using it to get up into a tree.

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Kitty in the tree.

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I’m Back

Yes folks, I’m back on this side of the Atlantic, with many tales to tell of striking Lufthansa pilots of whom I cannot complain because they allowed me extra days in Rome; of jet-lag and postponed surgeries; of reverse culture shock and a desperate need to catch up on all my work. This wee post is just a start. In the meantime, here is a pic of a lovely girl I saw in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.

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