Helping the stray and unwanted cats of Prague
The Prague Animal Protection Association is an NGO which helps abandoned, injured, sick and abused animals, mainly in and around Prague. One of their projects is the Kocour Felix cat shelter, located in the town of Klecany, just north of Prague on the eastern banks of the Vltava river. Hanka Janišová, who heads the association, very kindly agreed to show me around the shelter.
I can see some cats even from the outside, as there is a cat cage connected to the building via a small hole in the wall. So the cats can come outside and get some fresh air. And some of them are looking at this new visitor...
I am joined by Hanka Janišová, head of the Pražský spolek ochránců zvířat (PSOZ), and also Maria Běhanová, who is a member of the organisation. You have both very kindly agreed to show me around...
Maria, tell me about the history of the PSOZ.
“It has existed for a very long time – from way before I came to the Czech Republic. I have only been here for seven years.”
Where are you from?
“I am from Venezuela.”
So there are Venezuelan volunteers working in a Prague cat shelter.
“Indeed. I got lost...” [laughs]
And you were motivated to help out here by your love of cats?
And this building here is the Felix the Cat shelter.
So this is the centre of operations. We have just come to the reverse side of the outside of the building. And here we find a far larger outside network of cage-like structures. So presumably this is also a place where the cats can come outside and get some fresh air...
So how many cats do you have here?
Hanka: “Around 150 now.”
Is that a lot, with respect to your maximum capacity?
Maria: “It is on the high end. We usually have a little less, but it is a big shelter. The reason we have this system of what we like to call ‘outside gardens’ is because some cats don’t like to be indoors. We have cats that come from communities in which they could no longer stay because it became too dangerous. So they remain with us until we find them another place that they can go to. And in the meantime, many such cats prefer to spend most of their time outside here bathing in the sun.”
Maria: “A major source of cats for us come from people who have passed away and didn’t have anyone to whom they could leave their pets. So they end up here. We try to make it as easy as possible for them and then to find them a home quickly.”
There is another lady I see working here. And she is sorting through what look like packets of cat food. So people donate cat food?
Maria: “Yes. This is a donation.”
You are an NGO – oh, I just have to put on some special shoe covers as we go inside – and that means you are reliant on people donating funds to you...
Maria: “Exactly. All of our funds come from private donors. Although the city does offer us a very good price on renting this facility.”
So people can donate cat food, money...
Maria: “Yes. But for those planning to buy cat food and send it to us, it is actually better to send us the money directly because we can find the same cat food that you would be buying for a far better price.”
And do you also run fostering programmes so that people can temporarily foster cats?
Maria: “Yes, we do. And it is actually one of the biggest ways that foreigners living in Prague can help us. Because we know that a lot of people only stay in the country for a couple of years, and they are cat-lovers. If you foster an animal during this time it means that you really give an animal a great chance going forward. Fostering can aid rehabilitation, and also provide kittens protection from infectious diseases.”
Maria: “Exactly. And also the fact that they can dedicate themselves to one animal instead of the bunch of cats that we have here. So if anyone is listening and thinking that they love cats, but may be unable to permanently adopt one right now, then you can call us and arrange to foster for us and that would be just about the best thing you can do to help us.”
There are a couple of cats walking around us here. And we are about to step in to...oh, so this is it?! I expected us to step into some giant warehouse full of cats in cages.
Hanka: “I hate cats in cages. Only – for example we have one cat here in a cage, because we are taking her to the vet today, so the cat has to be in a cage today so that it doesn’t eat ahead of the vet visit.”
So my preconceptions are entirely wrong. This place actually looks like more of a semi-home environment. Almost like a school corridor or something like that... So this is where the cats live.
Maria: “It is a different model. Some people prefer the cat in a cage model. We don’t. And we have better results this way.”
Let’s try to meet some cats. We are going into a separate room off the main corridor.
Hanka: “We have to move slowly because the cats in this room are more shy...”
We are going into the room. Many cats are evidently wondering about who these people are coming in. There are three separate rooms here in this section. How many cats are in this bit?
Hanka: “There are five rooms with 65 cats.”
Presumably you want these cats to find homes. So how does it work if someone contacts you and tells you they would like to adopt one of the cats here? Do you have some kind of system in place to make sure that they go to a good home?
Hanka checks out the personalities of the applicants? Presumably you want to make sure you’re not sending the cats into environments of potential abuse or neglect.
Maria: “She tries to get a sense of the person. And Hanka is very talented at that. Also she finds out whether this person has had cats before, the conditions under which such cats lived, how they died – this kind of essential information. Their personalities are also an important factor – some people are better suited for more reserved cats; some for more active cats or for kittens.”
Do you yourselves become attached to the cats here? Do you give them names and get to know them?
Maria: “Yes, we really do.”
I am just crouching down and there is a black and white cat in front of me, obviously a bit wary of my presence. Is this a stressful environment for the cats (living together)?
Hanka: “Here in these rooms are cats that are feral. But they have a free life. I will show you another part of our shelter with more domesticated cats.”
So that was the feral cat section. And you can tell that because they are all a little bit reserved around humans. Let’s continue our tour. We are just entering another room now.
Hanka: There are five cats here. They came here after a woman died. All five cats were hers.”
So these are orphaned cats who lost their mummy. Can I stroke them? Now I am stroking one of the cats, which is black and brown-coloured. So for these cats are you looking for someone to adopt them all together? Are they bonded to each other?
Maria: Sometimes we do find cats that are very bonded to each other. That usually occurs with pairs. Not bigger groups. So in such cases we do try to find them a home together and prefer to wait rather than to separate them.
Maria: “Her name is Queen.”
In an average week, how many cats come in, and how many cats go out?
Maria: “The number of cats that come in really depends on the time of year. We experience a very high influx of cats during the summer. Because that is the time when outside cats have their mating season. Then in early autumn, many people bring us cats (found around) their summer cottages. And then in the spring mostly kittens come in.”
How many volunteers do you have working here, and do you also have paid staff?
Maria: “We have paid staff that we rely on. Because when you work with volunteers, it just so happens that everyone is available only on the weekends, or at a certain time. And then we wouldn’t have help for the rest of the time. We need people to be here at all times, even overnight. And we need someone here on a day-to-day basis to take care of cleaning and feeding the cats and that kind of basic maintenance. So for that we rely on paid staff.”
How much does it cost to run a place like this?
Maria: “It costs us around 100,000 crowns every month, including veterinary expenses, paying for the building, food and litter, and all those kinds of things. That is a lot of money! So if anyone who is reading or listening feels like sparing a crown in our direction then we have instructions on how to donate at our website – psoz.cz And anyone who can adopt or foster a cat, that is also a great way of helping us!”
Hanka: “Over the last couple of years, we found around 300 cats homes each year. But each week is different. And every year, around 330-350 cats come in to the shelter.”
That is important, right, to prevent overpopulation?
Maria: “Yes, all cats here are spayed and neutered. Most cats are vaccinated. The only ones that aren’t are cats that are very old. Or cats that have a health condition that would deter us from vaccinating them.”
I am now conducting the interview by holding the microphone in one hand and stroking a cat with the other...
Bye, bye cats and good luck and I hope someone adopts you soon.
We are now heading into one more room. Your message presumably is also for people to not buy cats but instead adopt out of a shelter...
Maria: “That is so important. Adopting a cat gives them a new shot at life.”
We’ve just come into anther room. There are about nine cats here if my count is correct. And they all appear to be super friendly. The minute we came in they all approached us wanting to be stroked. There isn’t much meowing going on. I suppose cats only meow when they really want something. The cats here all appear quite contented and happy. So they basically live in something approximating a house with chairs...are you trying to deliberately replicate the home environment?
Maria: “Exactly. We want them to get used to furniture and to shelves and to try to get a feeling for what it would be like to live with somebody at home.”
Hanka Janišová and Maria Běhanová, thank you both very much for showing me around the Felix Cat Shelter.
Both: “Thank you for visiting us.”
And, once again, the website of the shelter is psoz.cz