An Unexpected Kitten Rescue in St. Lucia
The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Wildlife Trade Program Director Kelvin Alie asked if I would participate in a training workshop in St. Lucia and instruct law enforcement personnel on the basics of wildlife trafficking prosecution in October. How could I resist that assignment? My trip to St. Lucia was supposed to be a pleasant work experience in a beautiful setting by a blue ocean, with sun and evening drinks by the swimming pool. Instead, it turned into an unexpected run into a hurricane and a coordinated effort to rescue some local kittens from a useless death.
After spending a week on the beautiful island of St. Lucia and working with people who were dedicated to protecting wildlife, I stayed an extra couple of days to enjoy the exotic setting!
As I read by the pool, I couldn’t help but notice a couple of motherless young kittens occasionally appearing out from behind a bush. They were too skittish for me to approach them, but certainly would not turn down the lure of a little food!
And then it was Saturday, October 30, my birthday! I had a lot planned. Until, of course, the “innocuous” storm, Tomas, hit land as a Level 2 Hurricane! The wind was intense and the rain just didn’t seem to stop. In fact, our 2nd floor hotel room got flooded. This was the beginning of the unexpected turn of events.
The next day was pretty much the same. Wind. Rain. No running water and limited electricity. An increasing human death toll. Airports shut down. Main roadways destroyed. Feeling helpless, we ventured outside to look for the kittens but returned to our wet room with no sightings.
But that changed on Monday, the day we learned we would not get off the island for another 5 days! Not only did we see the (hungry) kittens but also, a big, friendly tom (aka the Boss) and several other cats, including an injured male.
The staff got used to our buying extra food at meal times and making the rounds a couple of times a day to feed the cats. The kittens were still skittish but learned fast that we symbolized food, which was a scarce item for them following the hurricane! The injured male also trusted me enough to accept food as well. Staff members nicknamed me the “cat girl” (affectionately, I hope).
Airport authorities scheduled “rescue” flights beginning Nov. 6 and so we had to get things in order to leave the island. We learned that the resort was closing down because the island’s main water supply had been damaged. We saw small cages on the grounds and heard rumors about what hotels in that area do with their “cat” problem, especially kittens. We decided we needed to do something before our flights. The problem, however, was that we had only 12 hours to determine what, if anything, we could go. Another unexpected turn.
I contacted the St. Lucia Animal Protection Society (SLAPS) to ask for their help with the kittens and also the injured cat. Most businesses were closed because of the hurricane and the impassable roads, but SLAPS committed to help me in any way they could. I had, in passing, told them that I would consider taking the kittens back with me to the U.S.
On Nov. 5, Maria Grech’s son, Nick, and Pam DeVaux of SLAPS met me at the resort. They helped me lure the kittens into a carrier so that Dr. Jenny Cenac, their vet, could examine them. The kittens passed her examination, but in order me to take them out of the country, they had to pass an official inspection by St. Lucia’s government vet.
Pam, Nick, and I decided to take advantage of the time we had waiting for the results from the government vet:
First, we found the old, injured tomcat and gave him antibiotics. For our second task, Pam and I drove to Gros Islet, a poor fisherman’s village, to look for a dog I had seen the night before the hurricane. The dog had a severe wound on its back, probably caused by a machete, and I wanted to see if he had survived the hurricane.
After about 30 minutes of driving, we found him. As soon we exited the car, he approached us along with his female companion dog (who just would not stop wildly wagging her tail). I suppose they approached us because they were hungry and could smell the treats we had. Either that, or they recognized us for the bleeding hearts that we are! While he ate, he let us check his wound, which had improved immensely. These dogs reminded me just how resilient animals can be, despite humans!
Our third task was to find a carrier so that I could take the kittens with me on the plane since I would not consider putting them on cargo during the 12-hour flight back to DC. After two hours of searching, we found the perfect carrier at, of all places, a clothes boutique!
When we returned to the resort, I was relieved to see Dr. Cenac returning the kittens to me with an official Government Export and Health Certificate. I then called American Airlines and made a “reservation” for the kittens (a reservation, that is, to be placed in the carrier beneath the seat!). Everything was set for my return home after a 6-day hurricane delay with the two little island citizens.
But before settling in for the night, I wanted Nick to see the other cats, especially an incredibly friendly female cat who had recently lost her newborn kitten. As expected, Nick fell in love with her instantly and said that he would take her in if I could catch her. Well that was a no-brainer, because she liked being around people more than other cats so getting and keeping her in my room was not a problem!
On the morning of my return flight, Nick came to take the friendly mom cat to his house and later to the vet for a checkup and spaying surgery. The kittens had no idea what type of a trip they were facing, and I was clueless to just how stressful that trip would be!
Airline officials checked the export certificates, examined the kittens, and let me board the plane for an extremely rough flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico. But so far, so good. The kittens didn’t make a sound during the entire flight. U.S. Customs confirmed my paperwork and checked the now petrified kittens. Again, so far, so good. I finally started to relax. The problem, however, was I had no appreciation for the difficulty I would face passing through TSA security.
I held the kittens tightly as I went through security but as I placed the second kitten into the carrier, the TSA agent yelped (apparently, she was scared of cats…), which startled the kitten so much that he jumped out of my arms and scrambled down the terminal.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: a small kitten running past terminal gates, shops, the food court, and hundreds of people. I had no idea how I was going to catch him. All I could think about was how he was going to be alone and lost in Puerto Rico’s airport. So I did the only thing I could think of: I took off after him as fast as I could yelling for people to try to catch him, and with the help of a Customs officer, I cornered and grabbed him. But then, just to make sure I knew how unhappy he was about the whole situation, he bit me as hard as he could!
Apart from the rough turbulence during the entire flight to Miami, the rest of the 8 hour trip was uneventful. Luckily.
TODAY: The kittens, named Tomas and Jerry, are comfortably settling in and are becoming friendlier as each day passes. I’m working with Homeward Trails, an animal rescue in DC, to find a home for these little island guys. Of course, they cannot be separated, and their future adopter needs to be an experienced cat person.
The mom cat, named Cleo, has also settled into Nick’s home and has “adopted” Nick’s mom, Maria and follows her around all the time. Nick continues to check in on the injured male cat who had greatly improved.
I hope to raise some money for Pam DeVaux’s SLAPS rescue to cover the expense covered in catching and fixing the remaining 6 cats on the resort property so that they stop reproducing and so that the resort doesn’t feel the need to “deal with” the growing cat problem.
Without SLAPS’s help, I would not have been able to bring these 2 kittens safely home and prevent them from being disposed of. I’m so glad that with SLAPS’ assistance, I stepped out of my comfortable-tourist-zone and helped these animals, and I cannot thank Pam, Maria, and Nick enough for helping me! It is good to know that the resort cats “left behind” are going to be cared for, as well. I also cannot thank Kelvin Alie enough for the entire experience – something I wouldn’t hesitate to do again! This is a work trip I will not forget.
For more information on IFAW efforts to fight illegal wildlife trade around the world visit: www.ifaw.org