I walk blindly through the busy Medina, eyes red-rimmed, cheeks damp with tears. Passers-by double-take as they glance at me. Perhaps a fight with her husband? A bereavement?
I knew that visiting a country with so many stray cats would test my strength and self-control. I’ve been so proud of myself, remaining aloof, objective and somewhat distant. Determined not to bond with any cute and furry face. I’ve engaged with the cats of Morocco only through my camera lens. Yes I’ve secreted food from meals in serviettes and fed bread and butter to skinny mother cats, cheese to baby kittens, lamb scraps to Toms on the prowl – anything to help me sleep at night – as I lie awake, my heart aching for the hundreds (yes hundreds) of cats that both thrive and survive within the walls of the old cities.
Tonight was just too much to bear. A tiny kitten was stumbling around in one of the busy main streets. He was narrowly missed by some pedestrians, then a bicycle noticed him at the last second and swerved to avoid him. Donkeys pulling carts, pedestrians, more bikes followed – the hazards were overwhelming and it seemed that at any moment his little body would be crushed. Geoff scooped him off to the side, but as we walked away, he staggered with the semi-blindness of the newly-born, back into the road. I can’t see him surviving uninjured. What chance would he have with no one to care for him? 💔
Morocco is a special country and I love just about everything about it. But the complete absence of animal rights is something that I just can’t accept. Cats are certainly not deliberately mistreated and frequently we saw locals putting out scraps for them, ensuring that bowls of water were filled. Some people put out sheets of cardboard, or boxes for them to nest in. But they are neither inoculated nor sterilised so there are so many kittens and far too many of them have the gummy eyes typical of feline herpes virus.
Most of the cats that we pass in the various cities live their entire lives on the street. They are neither wild nor feral. The city is their home and they are a well-integrated part of society in many ways. They have no fear of humans. Most of them are friendly, and will dart over if you crouch down to their level, hoping for a chin scratch, a comforting stroke, but even better, a small treat. Street smart, they look out for vehicles before they cross the street, but they are still small and vulnerable and are rarely treated as the fully fledged pet status they deserve.
Cats are venerated in Islamic tradition. They are admired for both their cleanliness and ratting ability. “Affection for cats is part of Faith”. According to hadith, the Islamic prophet Muhammad prohibited the persecution and killing of cats.
One of Muhammad’s close companions was known as Abu Hurairah, literally meaning “Father of the Kitten”, for his attachment to cats. Abu Hurairah reported that he had once heard Muhammad declare that a pious woman be “sent to hell” when, after having been “annoyed” by a female cat, she tied the cat up with a rope leaving her to die without food and water. According to further legend, a cat once saved Muhammad from being bitten by a snake. (Wikipedia.com)
The Prophet Muhammad’s own cat was called Muezza, and there’s one well-known story about their relationship. One time, when the call to prayers was heard, Muezza was asleep on one of the Prophet’s robes. Rather than disrupt the puddy’s slumber, the Prophet cut off part of his sleeve so as not to disturb him. I can totally relate to this – sometimes I am also unable to get up for ages because I am so grateful to be graced by the weight of a cat on my lap.
Some cats have learnt to discreetly persuade you to part with some of your meal. Appearing from nowhere as your food arrives at the table they have mastered the longing look, patiently and silently waiting, knowing that the visiting humans will eventually relent and share an offering. Some bravely coerce a scrap or two by seductively winding their silky bodies and tail around your ankles.
As we explored the cities we would come across areas where citizens would leave food for the cats – there’d be so many congregating in one place. They know to gather at likely feeding times, when stalls are being set up in the souqs or at dusk when dinner is being prepared.
At the various monuments, palaces and mausoleums, cats have taken up residence. They calmly claim their territory, unperturbed by the endless flow of tourists milling around them.
Throughout the stalls in the souks, we would be drawn in by the cats who were making themselves at home among the wares. They curl up inside or on top of the merchandise, looking a bit put out if expected to move aside. Cats can make themselves comfortable anywhere!
The coastal cats that hang out in the fishing ports get the first pickings of fresh fish that doesn’t make the grade or slips through the nets. Some cats seemed completely at home crossing from one vessel to another, sleeping in a pile of nets or in the bottom of a boat. Others waited patiently beside a fisherman who was gutting and filleting his fish, knowing the heads and entrails would be theirs, or politely next to a street vendor, ever hopeful.
Although most cats seem healthy, sadly many are pitifully malnourished and have long-standing injuries and infections.
The more timid ones hang back when food is on offer, missing out time and again, despite the plentiful supply of food available and the more experienced dumpster raiders seem to survive quite well. I wondered about the quality of the food for a feline diet though. Mostly it seemed to be bread, chicken carcasses and scraps of cheese.
The biggest danger to the cats seems to be injury from vehicles. Scooters zip around in places like Marrakech and close shaves are a daily hazard for these felines. Despite this most cats seem attuned to the risks of a human trundling along with a big cart, or whizzing past on a bike.
Lots of shops have their resident cat who has chosen to make their home nearby and will provide mousing services in return for a warm and safe corner and hopefully some regular snacks. The perfect arrangement if you are a Moroccan cat! Disappointingly there is no structured and government funded neutering and vaccination programme for cats.
In 2019, such a programme was started for stray dogs. Dogs are not kept as pets and are seen as impure according to Islamic principles. However due the prevalence of rabies, a Trap-Neuter-Release programme has been implemented with sterilised an inoculated animals being tagged. It was gratifying to encounter these tagged pooches.
While there are many recorded benefits to sterilization, some Muslims believe that this procedure goes against their religion.
“Some Islamic scholars, or ulama, believe that sterilization interferes with God’s creation, and that good Muslims should not even keep animals–particularly dogs—as pets. Buying and selling dogs and cats is actually considered haram by some jurists, as is spending an excessive amount of money on caring for or celebrating animals.”
(Morocco World News, Morgan Hekking, August 2019)
On our last night I’d had enough. I couldn’t just be sad, I wanted to help in some way. How could this future-oriented, sophisticated country not also be focused on the plight of the voiceless? Unable to sleep I began searching on Google and composed a letter:
Secrétariat Particulier de Sa Majesté le Roi Mohammed VI Palais Royal de Rabat Méchouar – Touarga Rabat
I have recently spent a few weeks enjoying your beautiful country and am struck by the progressive thinking and action taking place in all parts of the country, in particular the improvement of the roads and mountain passes.
We have been overwhelmed with what a hospitable, friendly and enjoyable environment your country offers. It is something we would want to recommend to others. The only concern for me is the plight of the animals. In particular I saw that cats, although offered scraps and left-overs, are not properly cared for. The animals are not innoculated and many are suffering with infections, untreated injuries and malnutrition. Also there appears to be no programme of sterilisation.
I found myself driven to tears of shock frequently on observing the circumstances of many kittens and cats. It’s hard for me to reconcile such a modern and sophisticated nation with these poor and wretched creatures on the streets of every city and town.
Please, I implore you to help these animals with a programme of sterilization and inoculation. I am so torn between everything amazing that Morocco has to offer, yet sad and appalled by the situation of the cats.
I would be so grateful you can offer me some peace and hope that something can be done to help these animals. I don’t want my memories of Morocco to be ruined in this way.
Feeling helpless, I was reminded of this Paul Shane Spear quotation:
“As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.” Or cat.