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No pause for Paphos cat sanctuary despite pandemic challenges.

Every morning, Mark Foote and a team of volunteers spread out enough dry cat food or raw chicken mince for close to 1,000 cats, placing it in as many containers as possible to limit squabbling among the recipients. Then they pick up mops, washing the floors of the cats’ rooms, changing bowls of water and dispensing medication. Around them, cats sleep, play or prowl.

Tala Cat Park is built on the grounds of Agios Neofytos, a monastery founded in the 12th century, about 10km north of the city of Paphos. The cats living here are strays: some were discovered dumped in the nearby car park or left in boxes by the roadside. “Most here are abandoned,” says Foote.

Each day, they chew through 40kg of biscuits, while at least least three visit the vet for problems with diarrhoea or rotting teeth. Veterinary bills come to roughly €3,000 a month, while food costs about €1,000.

Foote, the general manager, has lived in Cyprus for a decade and volunteered helping cats for almost as long. He sold his business, moving over from the UK with his wife, Dawn, on what they called “a gap year”.

At first, they fed stray cats they noticed around the monastery, before church authorities granted them land. Now, locals donate bedding. A local butcher gives them liver for free.

Donors

A few hundred of the cats are sponsored by donors across the world. More than 1,000 have been rehomed, mostly in Cyprus, but also to Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.

Before the pandemic about 50 tourists visited daily, providing a steady source of donations. This stopped in 2020, though Foote and his team continued to volunteer throughout the pandemic. They say visitor numbers are still only half what they once were, while fundraising – including a regular quiz night– had to be cancelled. “It’s been a tough couple of years,” he said.

Roughly 900 cats live here, more than 800 of whom have names. All cats are vaccinated and spayed or neutered after arrival. There is a special area for cats with disabilities, including those missing legs or an eye.

Cyprus is an island of cats: it has an estimated estimates say there are1.5 million, more than the 1.3 million population of people. They are ubiquitous in Paphos, a favourite destination for British holidaymakers on the island’s southwest, which is said to be the birthplace of Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite. The cats lounge by swimming pools, sit in bar chairs and wait on street corners, hoping for scraps from tourists.

The earliest known evidence of a cat being kept as a domestic pet was discovered on Cyprus, in a grave more than 9,500 years old, where a human and cat were buried together. Separate legends say both Cleopatra and St Helena of Constantinople brought hundreds of cats to the island to exterminate snakes.

The treatment of cats has even become a political issue. A new animal police unit began operations in May this year, investigating more than 200 incidents of potential abuse or mistreatment by late August.

The Animal Party” -– calling for better rights for Cyprus’s animals – ran multiple candidates in parliamentary elections this year, though none was successful. The party supports calls for the government to raise its spend from the currently allocated €75,000 a year on getting cats neutered and spayed.

Petition

This year, more than 25,000 people signed a petition asking the government to increase this budget to €500,000 annually. “Stray cats in Cyprus are everywhere. From the seaside, to restaurants, neighbourhoods,” it read. “And they are constantly dying from road accidents, disease and malnourishment.”

Meanwhile, good Samaritans are turning to social media to help strays. A Facebook page called “Cyprus Cats Who Need Homes or Help!” has nearly 9,000 members. It gets hourly posts from people crowdfunding the fees for cat medical care, or asking for people to adopt kittens which they have found outside hotels or in car engines.

One regular poster is Demetra Demetriou, based in southern coastal city Limassol. Near her house is a cemetery with more than 100 abandoned cats. The first time she saw the conditions they were living in it “shocked” her.

“From that day on, I have been going almost every day . . . Feeding, cleaning, spraying for diseases, finding homes to new kittens, fostering.”

Demetriou said some Cypriots do not believe in neutering cats for religious reasons – they think it goes against God – but “lots of tourists are complaining” now, which might encourage the government to do more. “It’s a beautiful island other than animals suffering,” she said.

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