Things you probably know about Cory and me: We are cat people.
Things you may or may not know about Cory and me: Up until last month, we had two cats. And now, the one we still have (our lovely one-eyed boy, Toby), is living in Wisconsin with my parents until we can successfully get him to Ukraine next summer.
This is all to say, we desperately miss having a cat in our daily lives here. We’re those crazy people who immediately want to pet and hold our friends’ cats when we visit their homes, and we update each other on the whereabouts of the local homeless cats.
So, imagine our delight to discover that our fall holiday decisions aligned perfectly with our cat cravings.
Admittedly, we didn’t know much about Greece before booking our recent fall holiday. But not only did we have a relaxing and wonderful trip to Crete and Santorini, we also discovered that Greeks care for lots of community cats.
After arriving in the evening in Heraklion, Crete, and being dumped off at our hotel by a local taxi, we wandered the tangled alleyways until we found a cute little restaurant for dinner. While eating, a couple small cats wandered down the alley and discreetly sat under the table next to ours.
To say we were smitten was an understatement. But this wasn’t an isolated event.
When we walked back to the hotel that evening, we saw a couple more cats walking around. And the next day, when we arrived in Santorini for a few day’s stay, we happened upon a couple more cats.
This time, Cory gently approached while I stood back and watched. They looked healthy enough, but I know from fostering so many cats over the years that it’s best not to overwhelm them with too many new people, smells and sounds at one time. Especially given these were, what we thought at the time, feral cats.
Much to his delight, he managed to pet the cats, and they weren’t at all defensive or aggressive. In fact, they were quite comfortable being stroked and having their ears scratched.
Over the next couple days, we encountered this time and time again. There were cats asleep by the entry hut at Akrotiri and one snoozing on a pile of books in a bookstore in Oia. Near our apartment in Chania, there were five cats who lounged outside a restaurant down the street from us. Two of them were particularly friendly, meowing and rubbing up against our ankles until we pet them.
One afternoon, Cory spotted a few cats standing around a park bench in Chania’s old town. At this point, he was keeping count of how many cats he could pet on our trip, so while he headed toward the batch of kitties that pulled him like a human magnet, I stepped into a small shop.
It was a wonderful little store, shelves tightly packed with bottles of locally produced olive oil and wine. The shop owner’s neighbor made the olive oil and carved products from olive trees, which she sold in a back room, while various other community members made wine and soap. Plus, there were lots of spices, and I knew Cory would be interested in checking out some of the products.
But where the heck was he?
I walked back outside after several minutes and found him not only petting the stray cats but actually holding one on his lap. “I sat down, and this kitty just jumped up on me,” he said, as if I needed him to provide an explanation.
Posted on the fence behind where Cory was sitting was a large sign that explained there were three clusters of street cats living in the neighborhood, and there was a local woman who paid to ensure they were sterilized, fed and taken to the vet for medical care. If we were interested, we could donate to the cause at the little shop I’d just been in. (Yes, we donated to the cause.)
That’s when I noticed these particular cats had their ears clipped, which meant they’d all been sterilized – something that is massively important in ensuring feral cat populations are under control. Since being home, I’ve been reading up on the stray cat situation in Greece, and some of what I’ve read has indicated that these cats are generally considered vermin or are otherwise unwanted by local people, but what I encountered is actually a bit different. In response to the number of cats in Greece, a number of local homeless animal organizations and individuals, like the one we encountered in Chania’s old town, help to safely and appropriately control the cat population.
We didn’t see anyone act cruelly toward these homeless cats. The locals weren’t out petting them the way Cory was, but they treated them as members of the community. Local restaurants put their scraps out for them in the evening, and there were water dishes everywhere for street cats (and some street dogs) to drink from.
Likewise, local shop owners, for the most part, didn’t seem to care if cats came and went from their storefronts throughout the day, and you could tell that the cats knew better than to cross the threshold of a dining establishment.
The stray cats in Greece were, by and large, community cats, generally cared for by the people in the neighborhood. I don’t know the specifics regarding the sterilization programs located on each of the islands, but I’m guessing there is a catch-and-release strategy at play and local cats are fed and watered by those in the neighborhood, but when it comes to general medical care like vaccinations, they are left to their own devices.
When we lived in Kenya, I was horrified by how people treated animals: Matatu driver tried to run over the street dogs for fun, and cats were tools used to catch mice but nothing more. Unsurprisingly, we adopted our boy Butch Mbwa there and flew him home to the United States, where he lived out his life comfortably and free from cruelty.
What I saw in Greece was different. Yes, there were feral cats we could not approach, and there were definitely a fair share that were scrappy and scrawny and had seen a brawl or two in their days. But many more were healthy, happy (even downright purr-worthy) and well cared for.
They may not be pets in the common sense of the term, but for our fall holiday, at least, Greece’s cats became our cats. And for that, I am incredibly thankful.