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Activists Oppose Attempt to Eliminate Puerto Rico’s ‘Colonial Cats’


San Juan, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of cats have long crept through the cobblestone streets of Puerto Rico’s historic district, stopping for the occasional pat on the head as delighted tourists and residents snap photos and offer morsels of food.

The cats are so beloved that they even have their own statue in Old San Juan.

But officials say their population has grown so much that the US National Park Service wants to implement a “free-roaming cat management plan” and is considering options that could include removing the animals.

The idea has outraged many people, who fear the cats will be killed.

“It’s like Disney World for cats,” said Alfonso Ocasio, who has been going to Old San Juan since 2014 to feed cats a few times a week. “I don’t know how dare these people take on the world with their proposal.”

Black cats, white cats, calicoes and tabbies roam the seaside paths surrounding the historic fort known as “El Morro” that guarded San Juan Bay during colonial times. The shy and surly crouch in the bushes away from cameras and human hands while others perch on nearby rocks to groom themselves or watch passers-by as the ocean rolls by behind them.

They are known as “cobblestone” or “colonial” cats, but not everyone likes them.

“Visitor-cat encounters and the smell of urine and feces are … inconsistent with the cultural landscape,” the National Park Service wrote in its plan.

The agency said the plan aims to improve “visitor experience”, protect cultural and natural resources, reduce health and safety concerns and alleviate “nuisance issues”. He also noted that the cats are likely killing wildlife in the area.

So far, authorities are offering two options: remove the cats or keep the status quo. The latter would include maintaining feeding stations, spaying or neutering cats and removing those that have not been tagged, work currently being carried out by the non-profit group Save a Gato.

On Wednesday evening, dozens of people gathered for the first of two public meetings on the issue. But when National Park Service officials said there would be no hearing and asked people to write only their comments, the crowd erupted in anger.

“That does not make sense !”

“We have doubts! We have questions!

“Let’s defend the cats!”

The crowd continued to shout, demanding a public hearing until officials relented. They opened the doors of a small theater as an elderly activist blew the emergency whistle on his key ring to usher in the crowd.

People spoke one by one to loud applause. Their biggest concern was that the cats would be euthanized, although the national park said it was still receiving public feedback and any decision would be based on that.

“These are the first steps,” said Myrna Palfrey, superintendent of the San Juan National Historic Site. “We don’t have any answers at this time.”

Several nonprofits demanded evidence to support the plan’s claims that some people didn’t want cats and that they may be hunting wildlife in the area.

“I see tourists completely in love with these cats,” said Nydia Fernández, who lives in Old San Juan and walks three times a week around the historic fort, where herds of cats congregate.

A final decision is months away, but the proposal to remove the cats saddens Ocasio, an animal lover who spends up to $15 a week feeding cats in Old San Juan. He said he adopted those who are sick and elderly, caring for them in their final days.

Among the residents who spoke was Toru Dodo, who moved from California to Puerto Rico earlier this year and lives in Old San Juan.

He wondered what the authorities were going to do with the cats, whether ecological assessments had been made beyond the camera traps and what the consequences of their removal would be, particularly with the rat population.

Dodo also asked what would happen if people continue to abandon cats in the area, which activists say is a problem.

“I’m not the only one who wants to know the answers,” he said amid applause and cheers. “These are one of the wonders of Old San Juan.”

ABC

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