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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Rescued from the rubbish tip: saving the stray kittens of Azemmour

Meet the British charity worker who is nursing Morocco’s stray cat population back to health

Take a stroll around any bustling city in the Middle East and you’ll spot a host of cats. Some ragged, scrawny and unloved, others plush, well-fed and ­charming. But too many unspayed domestic or stray cats can lead to a population explosion that causes cities and towns to become overrun with kittens suffering from a variety of illnesses related to a lack of care and malnutrition. One city that struggles with the issue is Azemmour in Morocco.

Look through the photo gallery above to see a few of the cats of Azemmour.

Hundreds of stray cats turn up in rubbish dumps or outside homes across the city, which lies to the south-west of Casablanca. But one woman is on a mission to end the feline population’s suffering, with help from a local vet and a team of caring, concerned resident cat-lovers.

“The reason there are so many cats here is that there’s food to support them – although there is not enough and it’s not very nutritious – and there’s no sterilisation programme,” says Anne Heslop, 56, who founded the cat charity Erham. “Usually, where tourism has taken hold of a town, cats are in better condition, because there is more nutritious food around, and locals who rely on tourism understand that healthy cats are an attraction to tourists.”

Anne Heslop started cat charity Erham in Azemmour, Morocco in 2017. Courtesy Anne Heslop
Anne Heslop started cat charity Erham in Azemmour, Morocco in 2017. Courtesy Anne Heslop

Despite being a bustling city with a stunning 16th-century medina, Azemmour is no tourist hub. But the local government supports Heslop’s work to nurse cats back to health and stall their rapid population growth. Heslop is from the UK, but she owns a home in Azemmour and launched Erham in 2017.

The word “erham” is an Arabic word that translates as “take pity”, and it sums up her mission perfectly. “I couldn’t bear to see sick and dying kittens every time I left my house, so had to do something about it,” she tells The National.

Soon enough, her small rooftop patio resembled more of an impromptu kitten hospital, as the town’s malnourished cats and poorly kittens found their way to her. She launched her charity initiative with a cat-care awareness event. Erham’s main focus is now on sterilisation, but the team of volunteers also continue to care for the city’s sick kittens.

One female cat can produce up to eight kittens in a litter

Pete Wedderburn, Irish vet and TV personality

Videos and photos taken by Heslop show the animals with crusted-over, infected eyes stumbling around the streets of Azemmour, while emac­iated mother cats try valiantly to feed their litters. The images are distressing, but they present an honest picture of the results of overpopulation and a lack of care.

Out of control

“One female cat can produce up to eight kittens in a litter, and she could have two or three litters a year,” says Irish vet and TV personality Pete Wedderburn. “The new kittens rapidly grow up into breeding adults themselves. Within a few years, a stable population of six cats can multiply to over a hundred animals. When this type of population growth occurs, the feral cats become a nuisance,” he adds.

The Cat Group, a British organisation that includes the RSPCA, British Veterinary Association and various other charities, lists myriad risks of leaving cats unneutered. Female cats are more likely to develop an infection of the womb, and pass diseases on to their kittens, which may then end up on the streets. Male cats are more likely to spread feline AIDS, or become injured when fighting with other toms.

“It’s the only way to stop the suffering,” says Heslop of spaying and neutering programmes. “I made a little film about the plight of the cats and kittens in Azemmour and raised funds to start sterilising the cats. We started with females, to have a faster impact on the population, but we will also do males if they look war-torn and in need of our help.”

The second part of her initiative is scheduled to take place this summer, when Heslop will attend a London festival called CatFest in June, in the hope of finding homes for some of the kittens in her care. There will be an adoption centre on site, as well as cat accessories for sale and numerous film screenings for visitors.

Heslop spoke at the event last year, and this summer she hopes to encourage London residents to adopt some of the cats she brings with her from Azemmour. “Of the kittens coming to the UK, two were rescued from a rubbish tip, which is the main place people dump kittens, as there is a Moroccan lady who tries to take care of them there,” Heslop adds.

“It’s very hard for her, and it’s very dirty.

Erham has started to help – we had a big clean-up day, treated all the kittens and made waterproof shelters for them just before the rains last year.”

Not the only place

Azemmour isn’t the only city in the Middle East that is struggling to control its feline population. In the UAE, an estimated 100,000 cats live on the streets of Abu Dhabi alone, with tens of thousands more in Dubai. A trap, neuter and release programme was rolled out in the capital in 2007, and organisations such as Emirates Animal Welfare continue to try and limit the population that was growing out of control.

Turkey is also home to a rising cat population. More than 80,000 people like the Cats of Istanbul Facebook group, and in 2016 a statue of Tombili, the city’s famous rotund street cat, was revealed in the city’s Ziverbey neighbourhood to mark the animal’s death.

That year, Turkish film­maker Ceyda Torun made a documentary called Kedi, about the cats of Istanbul. “Without them the city would lose its soul,” she said in an interview about the film, which follows seven cats in the city. “It is said cats are aware of God’s existence,” says one of the people interviewed in Kedi. “While dogs think people are God, cats don’t. They know better.”

Erham hopes to take advantage of this reverence for cats in the region, by raising more money for her charity’s efforts. Ultimately, she has ambitions to open Morocco’s first kitten adoption cafe, as well as find new homes for all those cute, abandoned critters that turn up at her door.

Updated: April 18, 2019 10:45 PM

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