For those of you who have been following us online, you'll know that recently our Chief Cat Carer, Laura and Cat Carer (& Chief Cat Photographer!) Mona went to Skiathos to learn more about the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association (SCWA) and lend them a hand for a few days.
It was an emotional experience for them - on one hand, what a dream to be surrounded by hundreds of lovely felines clamouring for affection! On the other hand: the struggles and hardship faced by the cats and the charity trying to help them were really distressing to witness and our two cat cafe volunteers wished they could have done more.
They've returned today after a long flight via Athens and took a few moments to share their feelings after their bittersweet experience with the Skiathos Cats and the people who care for them.
Tell us what you did while you were in Skiathos
LAURA: Our time in Skiathos was very busy and we did so many things! Our long weekend with the cats started with a live stream on the first night (it was around 11pm in Skiathos!).
As Chief Cat Carer at Lady Dinah's, naturally I was very focused on the cats themselves: their health and living conditions and the volunteer work that is undertaken at the charity.
Our first day was spent exploring, looking for the cats living wild all around the island. It was really something - there are so many strays! They are everywhere! We found cats in bins, in churches, between the tables of many small restaurants, on balconies, at windows, and sunbathing in the middle of the road.
In the following days I helped Katie and Nina, the 2 volunteers who were helping SCWA at the same time that Mona and I were there. We spent our time cleaning and tidying up the Association's site of operations and maintaining a number of feeding stations around the island.
On Monday, Nina and I trapped an injured cat that was reported to be found in a field (via social media) and took him to the vet - he had suffered from trauma, specifically to his head. We left him in good hands and hopefully he will make a recovery.
Of course, I obviously tried to cuddle as many cats as possible in my spare time and often found myself carrying out my tasks with a cat on my head or on my shoulders!
MONA: We were in Skiathos for 3 days and each day was a different experience.
The night we arrived, we went for a little walk around the centre and were surprised at just how many stray cats there were, even though we read all about it and knew what to expect. Even being prepared in advance, it was a lot to take in when you see it in real life.
We started our Saturday by having breakfast with two other volunteers, Nina and Katie, and talked with them about their experience volunteering with SCWA.
For the rest of the day, we took our backpacks and explored the island to understand the situation for the strays of Skiathos. As Chief Cat Photographer at Lady Dinah's, I took the opportunity to take loads of pictures and videos, which I can't wait to share with you all in the coming days.
On the second day we visited the association's site to meet Sharon and the ~200 cats living at her home. Katie and I took the car and went around the island to feed all the stray cats. She told me stories about some of them and she told me about the 18 feeding stations across the island that Sharon and her volunteers are in charge of, although there is another friend of hers, Stuart, feeding some of the cats as well.
Meanwhile, Laura stayed at the house with Nina and helped with the day-to-day cat husbandry.
On our last day, Monday, we swapped places: Laura went to the feeding stations and I stayed with Katie and Sharon at the main site. During the end of the day we all sat down to have a chat and took a few interviews where we talked about the association's current crisis regarding the land and lack of funds. We'll be putting that video together to share with everyone in the next week or so.
What was the most rewarding part about volunteering?
LAURA: It was heartwarming to know our work will hopefully help all the cats we got to know and fell in love with to find a new home and better living conditions. I'd like to think we also helped to give as many cats as possible the love and cuddles they deserve.
MONA: The most rewarding part of volunteering was definitely seeing how much every little gesture and affection matters to these cats. The hope that we can offer them a chance to a better life and seeing how happy they are to receive some love and care just filled my heart with warmth.
What was the hardest part about volunteering?
LAURA: Honestly the most heartbreaking part is to see all these sweet cats who just want to be loved and stroked and not having enough time and hands to cuddle them all.
MONA: Most of the cats were incredibly affectionate and demanded attention non-stop, and even if we tried to ignore them, they would climb up our legs and shoulders to be closer to us. Although they are very sweet and happy to receive cuddles, I found it extremely difficult and heartbreaking to see what the lack of a proper shelter is doing to them.
Besides the fact they don't have a proper indoor place to live in during the winter, there is no proper isolation unit for the sick cats, which means every disease gets transmitted to all cats.
We ended up seeing around 150 cats and spending 2 days getting to know them, cuddle and play with them. It really breaks my heart knowing that they will have no shelter if they don't raise enough money for a new property and there is nowhere for them to go. There are just not enough resources to give them all the proper care they need to get better.
Is there anything you wish you could do to help the Skiathos cats?
LAURA: I'd like to go there again to volunteer. In a new location with enough space and funding, with my background in biotechnology and my experience with cats at Lady Dinah's, I think I could help the association in the organisation of an isolation room and a kitten room and better procedures to give medicines and avoid the spreading of diseases.
MONA: I hope I can visit Skiathos again and go help cats and Sharon, but in order to do that, my main wish at the moment is to help raise awareness about their cause and give these loving cats the care they deserve.
What do you think does the most good for the Skiathos cats?
LAURA: The amount of cats on the island is appalling. Trap Neuter Release (TNR) programs are absolutely critical. SCWA already runs a TNR program in collaboration with the local vets (there are only two vets and they have a lot to do!), the municipality and as many vet volunteers as possible. They have been able to neuter many cats these year, but unfortunately it is a never ending task
Another important aspect to help the cats and the charity would be the involvement of the local population. If more people helped to feed the cats around the island and trap the cats during the neutering weeks, the charity could focus funding and energy on the sick cats.
MONA: In addition to getting the funding they need for the new site, I think TNR is the most important on the list at the moment. The population of cats is constantly increasing and even during our short stay there we were there to witness the rescue of 2 litters of abandoned kittens.
Do you have a favourite cat?
LAURA: I have so many favourites! The black cats were all so cuddly and loved to climb on our shoulders to sleep, while the gingers would get on our lap.
Being there only for a few days I couldn't get to know them all, but 2 cats were my absolute favourite: one is Lisa, a deaf grey calico. She liked to stay in the house and to explore and seemed very independent despite her disability. Once I started stroking her, she would follow me everywhere, meowing loudly! She loved to climb on my shoulder and hug me, rubbing her face against mine, and it was impossible to convince her to get down.
The other one was a very skinny ginger and white cat. I can't remember his name, but he loved to stay outside, hated to be picked up, but would always come to me for cuddles wherever I went outside. He was so sweet and would close his eyes every time I stroked him between his eyes. He's so skinny and I really hope he will be fine in the future.
MONA: They are all lovely, but I have a soft spot for two blind cats, Maria and Antonio. They're both female and have quite different characters.
Antonio is a fluffy black and white, incredibly affectionate kitty. I was so impressed to see how she just trusts your voice, follow you around and let you pick her up and hold her on your chest while giving her chin scratches. She reminded me a bit of our Peter.
Maria is quite the character! She is a beautiful ginger girl, very shouty, doesn't like the other cats and screams at them whenever she can feel them too close to her surroundings. That must be a coping mechanism for her, as there are quite a few cats around and it's impossible for her to see anything. Her spot is always around the sink and she responds whenever you call her.
She let me give her loads of chin scratches and we had some lovely conversations in these past two days. I recorded some of them. I definitely like shouty Maria. She's a great mix of Lizzie and Mama if you ask me. Although she is sassier than both of them (if we ever imagined that to be possible!).
What do you think the SCWA needs the most, right now?
LAURA: Definitely a new space. They're going to be evicted soon and desperately need a new site, and along with that, the site needs to be built to meet their operational needs as an animal rescue facility.
They need different areas of the building and they need to be able to maintain quarantine protocols. This means they need an isolation room, a kitten room and a room for the many blind cats that they are looking after, among other things. This would help them to keep the cats safe and create the opportunity to instil important organisational and contagion management controls.
I also think they need someone working full time on these organisational and health and safety aspects. Sharon is taking care of most of the practical day-to-day care, with a few volunteers, but with so many cats and new crises every day, it's difficult for her to coordinate everything alone.
MONA: I definitely think the association needs the necessary funds to get a new land, build a safe and proper shelter that can be used for the current cats and all the other cats in need around the island. With good planning and appropriate units for all felines, from healthy ones to the blind, sick ones and all the kittens, the association will be able to do much more in the future in terms of rescuing, adoptions, TNR, etc.
Are there any lasting thoughts or feelings that you’d like to share?
LAURA: I think everyone who loves cats should go to Skiathos to visit the association in order to understand how bad the situation is.
It's important to acknowledge that there are cats in need who are living in the UK, and we know this, but alongside that it's important to acknowledge that there is a lot more support and help available here. Citizens and the government are involved with animal welfare concerns and there are a number of reputable shelters doing their best to help animals in the UK.
By contrast, in places like Skiathos the cats are often seen by the locals as a nuisance. At the moment, there's only one charity with 2 or 3 people taking care of everything and no help or funding from the government. The situation is critical and really quite heartbreaking.
MONA: I would just like to say that even though I made an effort to be informed and I've done a lot of research on the SCWA before going to Skiathos, I was not as prepared as I thought I was for how things really are.
I found this experience overwhelming and I felt quite powerless for the 2-3 days I've spent on the island.
I do hope we will be able to use our experience and our time there to help our friends and followers to understand how important every helping hand can be.
How you can help
If you're inspired to help the Skiathos Cat Welfare Association, you can donate to their current fundraiser to purchase land and build a new cat care facility that will enable them to continue their work.