Poison in our hearts

Over the past week, we have been finding dead cats in our garden, in the shed, in the basement. Most of them were kittens. We have tried to keep this fact from the children – who are aged 6, 4 and 2 – but the eldest has sensed what hides behind the sudden emptiness of our yard, and all three know that the little heads they petted until Sunday are no longer there. Someone threw poisoned food into the garden, probably on Sunday, as only three kittens and two adults were there when I fed them late that night. Now those kittens too are gone – either dead or disappeared. We had a lot of cats. With two litters that had been brought to us by their mothers about two months ago, and with mealtime visitors, we counted 18 regulars. Before the 11 kittens came, we had three cats in our yard from a previous birth – Teddy and his sister Lulu, who had moved on and lived somewhere else, and a ginger and white male who had survived a heavy illness as a kitten the previous winter and was now a dignified and friendly visitor. His early embrace with death had made him fearless. We found him on Monday, dead under a wooden palette in the shed, squeezed into a tiny space as if trying to escape into an impossible shelter from the torment tearing out his life. They did not belong to us; they were friendly, and demanding, from a distance. The first to arrive were those who over the past few years would eat what was left in our dog Flokos’s plate when he wasn’t watching. Through an unfortunate coincidence, Flokos died (at the ripe old age of 15) about a year and a half ago, at about the same time that a friend rescued a kitten he had found abandoned on his farm. Soon it was eating from Flokos’s old plate in our yard, and inviting its friends. Before we knew it, still not ready for another dog, we were swamped by cats. The problem sneaked up on us without our realizing it and then it became very difficult to solve. But we had reckoned without the intrepid problem-solving skills of our compatriots, most probably one of our neighbors. For some of us, there is no problem that death cannot solve. I cannot understand his motives, other than an irresistible need to make a desert and to call it peace. Nor can I forgive the fact that he threw poison into a garden where children play, where they run barefoot (even in winter), where their balls roll. But we ourselves are the main culprits here. We fed the cats and so, in a way, we were responsible for them. On the other hand, the two mothers that brought their litters were unknown to us before they arrived with their 11 kittens, so we could not be responsible for their not having been sterilized. Also, the kittens were a few weeks old when they arrived. Maybe we didn’t investigate the possibilities well enough, but in looking for a solution, the conclusion that we came to was that our only option was to «get rid» of the kittens in some way. Animal welfare societies would not take kittens who were already a few weeks old. Our municipality said that perhaps they could point us toward someone who could help sterilize the cats. But the kittens could not be sterilized until the females were about seven months old and the males a little older. So, catching and taking the older females for sterilization was something that we planned to do. But this would solve a future problem rather than the immediate one. We put up a sign on our front gate, with a child’s drawing of a cat that looked ferocious, like a tiger, saying «Kittens for free.» There were no takers. No options foresaw an immediate solution that would not lead to certain, violent death for the kittens. And as long as we fed them, many other cats would come calling at dinner time. Meanwhile, the little ones were growing up in paradise. They had food and a sunny garden to play in all day, and the dog’s old kennel in which to shelter. They spent hours stalking each other, programmed to practice for a life they would not lead. They knew no fear, other than a natural suspicion of humans which we adults did not try to ease but which the children had quickly broken down. The kittens would have been defenseless if we had put them in a box and abandoned them somewhere where we thought that, at least, someone might feed them. So all we could do was wait until they were a little older and had begun to venture out of the yard, and either chose to settle somewhere else or died in the natural order of strays’ lives. We thought that once they had toughened up we could get them sterilized and then either begin to wean them of their dependency on food in our yard or take them somewhere else where they might survive. None of this was ideal. But unless we wanted to risk killing them, we had no option but to wait. Then the poison came. What has surprised me most is how little I am surprised by this. Perhaps I feel that this is what the world is about, that we will all, at some time or other, be poisoned. What’s worse is that maybe, at some time, we will use poison in some way ourselves. Maybe once we have used poison we can never stop. I don’t know, I have no answers. Perhaps poison is deep in men’s hearts, a force of nature, something that is as much a part of life as disease, violence and cars that kill. All I can see is that in this case our world is divided into those who are with life, and the difficult choices it brings, and those who would play with death. Those with life are those who love, who have found that the more they give the more they have to give – the metaphor and miracle of the few fish and loaves that fed a multitude. Those who have chosen death as their ally have placed his shadow in their heart and this is their punishment. The world went about its business this week, with big things and small. Teddy and Lulu survived. There is terror in their eyes but they are alive. Why should anyone care about some cats in a garden in Athens? I don’t know. I saw things in Greece and abroad with the same eyes, but I felt them with a different heart and I can’t hide that. At my still point in the turning world. Many Greek and international animal welfare groups are working to sterilize and protect stray cats and dogs in Greece. Estimates are that there are 60,000 strays in Attica and 300,000 in the whole country. A good place to learn more is the Protection of Animals Worldwide website at www.paw-europe.com. Greece is at the center of its attention.

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