Call it the ultimate cat fight.
On an island that has come under fire for throwing dogs from bridges and euthanizing healthy racehorses, the animal rights debate has now turned to hundreds of feral cats that prowl Old San Juan.
Some say the cats are a tourist draw in the colonial district, just like the narrow cobblestone streets and fortresses overlooking the ocean.
But many, including the Puerto Rican government, say the felines have become an unsightly nuisance, a health hazard and a blemish on the area's charm.
Leading the critics is the Puerto Rican Health Department's chief veterinarian, Carlos Carazo Gilot, who proposes to herd the cats into one vacant building.
"Trash cans turned over, cat smells all over the city, cats with skin problems and lameness wandering in and out of vacated old buildings," said Carazo, ticking off his objections. "In my book, leaving cats to wander in the streets of San Juan is in itself cruelty to animals."
The community group Save a Gato says its program of trapping, neutering and releasing the felines has cut the population by more than half in the last three years. And past proposals to remove the cats have prompted thousands to sign petitions in protest.
"We want to make the cats' lives as good as possible," said Save a Gato president Sylvine Sherwood, a longtime Old San Juan resident. "We have a deep respect for life."
Either way, the cats are prowling the front lines in Puerto Rico's latest animal rights dustup. Last October, reports of pets that were seized from housing projects and thrown to their deaths brought global condemnation and triggered calls for tourist boycotts. An Associated Press investigation found that thousands of unwanted animals were tossed off bridges, buried alive and otherwise inhumanely disposed of by taxpayer-financed animal control programs.
Then in May, the AP reported that more than 400 former racehorses, many in perfect health, are killed each year by injection because owners find it too expensive to keep and feed them after they stop racing.
Feral cats in Old San Juan live on feedings by volunteers, who leave kibble and water where they dwell — along a scenic walkway below the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the fortress dominating the entrance to San Juan Bay that is run by the U.S. Park Service.
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The mostly healthy looking cats, offspring of abandoned domestic pets, emerge from their shady refuges, switch their tails and warily eat their fill before slinking into crevices between shoreline rocks.
A few bold strays are sporadically seen napping on pews of the historic cathedral where Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is interred. Parked cars are often overlaid with paw prints — or worse. But that doesn't deter the cat lovers.
"The cats are absolutely great for Old San Juan," said Lady Lee Andrews, whose souvenir and crafts shop sells feline-themed items to tourists who stroll the cobblestone streets during cruise stopovers. "They're not hurting anyone, and most visitors love them."
Sherwood said the trap, neuter and release process has helped cut the district's waterfront cat population from 250 in 2005 to about 85 currently. The program is an animal control model used in cities from New York to Buenos Aires.
And the cat colonies will continue to wither as more are neutered, said Save a Gato organizer Lesleigh Cox.
The U.S. Park Service, once an advocate of removing the cats, now agrees that neutering has cut the population significantly.
Park Superintendent Walter Chavez in 2004 proposed trapping the cats and removing them from the walkway under park jurisdiction. He shelved the idea when it sparked a letter-writing campaign and petitions signed by thousands of outraged activists, who said the cats would be euthanized.
But the U.S. island's government disputes Save a Gato's numbers.
Carazo says trap, neuter and release is not working because irresponsible pet owners keep dumping more animals, and sterilized cats still carry diseases.
He says the cats pose a host of health hazards, including toxoplasmosis, a parasite-borne infection transmitted by cat bites or scratches. It can cause serious complications for human fetuses and people with weak immune systems.
As a compromise, Carazo plans to meet with the San Juan municipal government about moving the wild cat colonies into abandoned buildings, where Save a Gato volunteers could run a shelter and place adoptable strays in homes.
Puerto Rico, where there is no pet registration law and little spaying or neutering, is "now learning about proper animal control and protection concepts," Carazo said. "We will keep working to solve this problem, hopefully without euthanizing any cat."
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