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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Won't somebody love us? Britain's cats are being abandoned in record numbers and inspiring volunteers are struggling to find them homes

By Liz Jones

Stroking the motherless grey kitten on my lap, I look down and see a thin, rangy tom cat winding around my legs.

For three years Major has survived on scraps from the local Chinese, and he is covered in wounds. Yet he is so friendly, someone must have loved him once.

Sadly, those days are long gone. Like so many of the cats around me, Major was abandoned by his owner and left to the care of the Celia Hammond Animal Trust (CHAT) in East London.

Two's company: These tabby kittens will be re homed in pairs

This cat and dog rescue centre, opened by the former Vogue model in 1986, receives 30 or more calls a day reporting abuse or asking for help.

CHAT never turns away an animal or puts down a healthy cat, but for the first time Celia tells me she is unable to cope with the demand.

Sadly, this situation is replicated all over the country, with animal shelters straining at the seams as they attempt to care for an estimated seven to ten million abandoned cats.

Last week, it was revealed that the number of unwanted pets is so high that healthy cats are being put down.

Shockingly, black cats and black and white cats — which, apparently, are ‘unfashionable’ colours — are the most likely to be destroyed.

This surge in the number of unwanted cats has been blamed on the recession, cutbacks and even global warming — which means cats are having kittens all year round, instead of just in summer — but it also speaks of a change in our attitudes to animals.

While we see ourselves as a nation of animal lovers, these abused and abandoned cats tell a different story.

Remember the outrage over the woman who put a cat in a wheelie bin? Well, in this patch of East London that sort of cruelty happens five to ten times a day.

I’m in the reception area of CHAT and there are cats everywhere: in the corridors, the loo, the office and outside in large pens.

In the past few days, cats have been found left in knotted black bin bags by a flyover. They have been discovered in wheelie bins in car parks and in sealed cardboard boxes left out with the rubbish at the side of the road.

‘Just the other day, we found a bag of cats in the car park over the road,’ says Celia.

‘Why not just walk a few more feet and leave them here? Why do they always leave cats in the most dangerous places?’

This prompts me to ask Celia — who works 18-hour days despite being in her late 60s — if she hates people sometimes.

‘All the time,’ she says. ‘This is the worst it has ever been. We are no longer coping. The problem is not just about lack of donations and poverty. It’s cultural: we offer free neutering, but people think this is wrong and against nature.’

A cat can produce up to 18 kittens a year. It’s been estimated a single female can have 50 million descendants in an average ten-year lifetime.

As we talk, a young woman comes through the door. She is carrying a tabby in a basket and five kittens in a cardboard box. Her story keeps changing. ‘My baby is allergic to cats,’ is her first reason for bringing them here. Then, minutes later, she says she found the cats in a basement.

‘Who knows,’ says Celia. ‘But at least she bothered to bring them in. Most people don’t.’

Celia, who spent the Sixties working with fashion photographer Terence Donovan, founded CHAT after becoming concerned about the number of feral cats in this country. There are more than 500 cats on its books at its three London centres. With six full-time vets on the payroll, costs are soaring — up 22 per cent last year, while this year is looking worse.

Pet food companies, which make millions from our so-called love of animals, have cut back on free donations.

Home repossessions have meant the number of cats made homeless has mushroomed, while the number of families willing to take in abandoned cats has plummeted. There is no safety net for animals affected by the Government cuts.

Feral cats are often seen as vermin by local authorities. Many are shot or poisoned on building sites and in factories by developers who do not want to take the time to ensure they are trapped and removed.

Celia even had to fight to be allowed to rescue the hundreds of feral cats living on the Olympic site. When she told me about the situation in 2009, I took in six of these cats.

It is telling that millions were spent on the Olympic development, billions will be earned in revenue and sponsorship, but not a penny could be spared to help these Stratford cats.

While the neglect of these animals is desperately sad, the cruelty many of them have suffered is more disturbing.

The number of cats brought in with gun-shot wounds has rocketed, as has the number of cats attacked by dogs: a new game is for young men to place their dog, normally an abused Staffie type, in a phone box with a cat.

Take a chance on me: (Left) Jack's eye had to be removed when he was rescued and Majorie (right) was left with two broken legs and a broken jaw after being hit by a car

Added to this, the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals), which treats the pets of those on benefits, has introduced a new rule — it will treat only one pedigree animal per household. This means sick animals are going untreated.

I meet a cat called Jack. His injured eye was left untreated for so long that it was eaten away by maggots. A passer-by took him to a vet, who immediately said his only recourse was to put the cat down. The person called CHAT, who sent a volunteer to pick up Jack. As he was brought into the clinic, the remains of his eye fell to the ground.

A team of vets removed every maggot with tweezers and flushed out the eye socket. Jack is now pain-free and healthy. All he needs is a home with someone who sees a pet not as an accessory, but as a family member. Sad stories like Jack’s are being played out up and down Britain. At Battersea, there are more than 200 cats waiting to be admitted.Despite a windfall last week from the estate of fashion designer

Alexander McQueen, at Blue Cross, which has animal shelters across the country, 230 kittens are waiting for new homes.

In 2010, the Blue Cross took in 1,175 kittens dumped in bags or left at roadsides.

This is not just an urban problem. Wood Green, The Animals Charity, with centres in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire as well as North London, receives 60 calls a day.

Excuses for dumping cats range from ‘We’re going to Spain on holiday’ to ‘They keep having kittens’ or ‘They’re ruining my lawn’. One woman called to ask if was OK ‘to poison my cat’.

But it is the smaller charities that are under the most pressure. Haworth Cat Rescue in West Yorkshire has 353 cats on its waiting list, more than half of which are kittens.

Vet bills are crippling for families on low incomes, as well as for rescue centres, and attract 20 per cent VAT. Surely there must be calls for VAT to be scrapped on vet bills and pet food if you have taken on a rescued cat (only working collies qualify for zero-rated food). The RSPCA wants local authorities to review their ‘no pets’ policies when placing families in rented accommodation (I took on a 13-year-old collie-Alsatian cross made homeless because the local council refused to put her family in a house that would take dogs). There should also be a levy on pet food manufacturers to support neutering schemes.

While none of the shelters I visited will put down a healthy animal, sometimes it is kinder to put cats to sleep than let them live out the rest of their days in a cage.

Yet many older animals are in a shelter only because their owners — often lonely, elderly ladies for whom their cats provided untold comfort — have died. No one seems to want an old moggy.

Having read the stories of the unwanted cats on these pages, perhaps someone out there will love — and be loved by — these beautiful animals again.



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