Cyprus volunteers struggle to feed soaring cat population

LEGEND has it that a Roman empress first brought cats to Cyprus to do battle with poisonous snakes, but centuries later it's the island's financial crisis that has sparked a population boom.

Some 1,700 years after Empress Helena shipped the whiskered hunters over to the Mediterranean country, animal lovers are battling to care for a soaring stray cat population after austerity measures caused cuts to a state sterilisation programme.

An unsterilised female cat can have up to eight kittens a year, which has left volunteers, some of whom are struggling financially themselves, grappling to provide food to an increasing number of meowing mouths.

At a shelter in the hills behind the seaside resort of Paphos, British volunteers say they spend around 2,100 donated euros (US$2,200, RM9,852.70) a month feeding their feline orphans.

The Tala Monastery Cat Park closed after reaching full capacity this autumn but still kittens were being left in the parking lot outside, its founder Dawn Foote said.

"Something has got to change. Come another two years, we won't be able to do this," Foote said as she swept between rows of cat beds.

Thousands of jobs were axed and salaries slashed in Cyprus as part of austerity measures in the fallout of the 2008 global economic crisis, with tens of thousands of people left depending on food handouts.

In 2011, the state also ended a programme of €50,000 a year to sterilise around 1,700 cats across the island, said Dinos Agiomamitis, who heads an association that helps felines.

'Kittens left behind'

"These last five years, they didn't operate (on) these 1,700 cats." Imagine "how many kittens they left behind. Thousands! And now we're rushing to cover this," said the head of Cat PAWS Cyprus.

To help control a population of hundreds of thousands of strays, the association offers those feeding them discount vouchers for sterilisation from partner vets.

But Agiomamitis also helps catch unsterilised cats for the Nicosia municipality, one of just a few in Cyprus with a small budget for the operation.

Under the orange trees of a private driveway, an elegant black-and-white cat cautiously sniffed a spoonful of tinned meat at the mouth of a long metal cage.

"If you're feeding 10 cats in your neighbourhood and don't decide to sterilise them, very soon you will have a big number," said Agiomamitis, who waited patiently nearby for the cat to take the bait.

As the stray crept further inside, Agiomamitis rushed in, closed the trap's door and carefully carried his furry patient to his truck, where seven other cats waited to be ferried off to the vet.

In the capital's centre, stray cats patrol cobbled alleyways. Tourists shoo away sleek felines trying to grab food from their plates and buy canvas bags printed with images of the island's famed animals.

The myth of Saint Helena and the cats is widely known in Cyprus, but French archaeozoologist Jean-Denis Vigne says the felines already lived on the island long before her time.

Excavations of stone age villages on the island have unearthed cat remains and proven the animal's domestication in Cyprus thousands of years before Egypt, he said.

Neolithic mice hunters

The earliest was found in 2013 "in the early Neolithic village of Klimonas, near Shillourokambos, and dated to 9,000-8,600 BC," he said.

"We believe that cats were introduced to Cyprus as early as this remote time, in order to fight mice," Vigne said.

"This is the date when the earliest cereal cultivations began in Cyprus, and we know that the accumulation of cereal stocks attracted a lot of mice in the villages."

Several millennia later, Ioannis Yiangou, a vet in the capital, spays and neuters cats at below the average rate with available funding from the municipality or private donations.

"The situation now is bad. So many people don't have money," he said.

Christodoulos Pipis, who heads state veterinary services, said funds at the authority today go to tackling issues with bigger impacts on the country's economy such as livestock diseases.

With no plans yet to reintroduce the pre-2011 budget, volunteers such as Agiomamitis have stepped in to feed members of the booming feline population.

From their own pocket, he and his wife feed up to 150 cats early each morning before he starts receiving calls for the association and she heads to work as a music teacher.

The stone fireplace builder says they spend €600 to €700 a month feeding them, a serious challenge as jobs have become scarce in his trade and his wife's public sector salary was trimmed after the crisis.

Before dawn, Agiomamitis followed the faint light of his overhead flashlight down the paths of a cemetery, balancing five plates of food on both hands, towards dozens of eyes glowing in the dark.

His wife Aggeliki called cats of all sizes to a mixture of tinned meat and rice, which they dished out between tombs marked by flickering candles.

"It's like a restaurant," she said. — AFP