ILHA FURTADA, Brazil – Eduardo Mayhe Ferreira has heard the stories for years. There was an island off the southeast coast of Brazil that looked deserted but wasn’t. Hundreds of abandoned animals were hidden in the thick canopy of trees.
Officially called Ilha Furtada, it was known to almost everyone as Ilha dos Gatos: Island of Cats. It was rumored that a visit was dangerous.
The cats were the size of dogs and were feral, people said. They would attack outsiders.
A Brazilian reporter who wrote about the “mysterious” island claimed 750 “wild” cats roamed its jungle. Others said more. The number seemed to increase with each statement.
Now Mayhe, a city veterinarian in nearby Mangaratiba, drove the motorboat across translucent water to see for himself. He had never set foot on the island before this city-backed expedition, but knew enough to understand that there was a problem.
A rumor was true.
Last year, when the coronavirus pandemic devastated Brazil, the number of cats on the island had increased significantly. Two different colonies had formed. The cats were hundreds of strength.
Each day seemed to bring more – and greater damage to the island’s ecosystem – but less consensus on what to do about it.
The island came into focus, an emerald green hubcap on blue water. A global phenomenon is taking place along this sun-drenched coast.
These are the pets the pandemic has left behind. The coronavirus crisis has left millions of pet owners dead or impoverished from being unable to take care of their animals.
In affluent countries like the United States, housing and personal networks have absorbed much of the surge. But in developing countries, where animal shelters are less robust and stray animals are common, more and more animals have simply been abandoned.
The challenge is particularly acute in Brazil, where the coronavirus has killed more than 465,000 people, sparked a housing crisis and caused widespread hunger.
Animal shelters in the country say they are overwhelmed. This also includes the animal shelter that is closest to Cat Island. Some days, says the director of the animal shelter Andrea Rizzi Cafasso, people arrive with a car full of cats. So many that she cannot accept all of them.
When she refuses, she says, she gets the answer: “If you don’t take them, they will go to the island of cats.”
From a distance Mayhe couldn’t see the cats yet. He knew that people across the region had long since sent unwanted cats to the island, either dropping them off themselves or paying a boatswain a few dollars for the trip.
It became part of the local culture, a final stop for unwanted cats, who either learned to survive or perished from the hunt and the food left by visitors.
What can be done about it has divided the community.
The city wanted people to stop feeding the cats and said this encouraged further exposure. But animal lovers called it barbaric. The cats would die without this care.
There’s nothing on the island, they say. No food. No water. Cats only.
The boat docked, and here they came, dragging themselves out of the trees to gather at the water, very mangy fur and narrowed eyes.
CAT STORIES AT A GLANCE
Nobody can say for sure how the cats first came.
Officials in Mangaratiba say a family tried to make a life out there decades ago but soon gave up, leaving behind a pair of cats that began to breed. Boat people say a restaurant has closed and the owners left their cats on the way out.
A vet says an old man confessed to her that he was the first person to take cats there. However, when asked to comment, he vehemently denied it.
The unanswered questions fed into the local tradition. Only a few wanted to visit Ilha Furtada, a small island among many, without beaches and full of spiders.
But Ilha dos Gatos was a completely different story. It became a stopover for some tourists on their island loop. Some went to the island on water scooters just to take a look.
Many came to believe that the island cats had it better than the city cats, who scratched themselves on the street and had to make a living.
“They have everything they need out there,” argued bosun Miguel Campos, 61. “There are birds to hunt and they have other food. There are seeds and insects and snakes that they can eat. “
But Amelia Oliveira, a veterinarian who travels Brazil to care for animals, says the myth is far from reality.
In 2012 a friend sent her video from the island. It wasn’t a cat paradise. It was Cat Alcatraz.
There wasn’t even a fresh water source out there.
“I couldn’t leave the cats out there in a situation like this,” she said. “I agreed to go at the same hour.”
She found the island teeming with an unknown number of cats.
Some came purring up to them. Others were far away – completely wild. They were born on the island, knew nothing about humanity and would be impossible to socialize.
She brought some of the pleasant ones back for adoption and started catching and neutering others. In the past ten years, 380 cats on the island have been neutered by their organization Veterinarians on the Road.
“The cat population has been controlled,” said Oliveira.
Organizations and a retired couple gave the cats food and water. Others set up small shelters. Fishermen gave up part of their catch.
But when the pandemic broke out, the delicate balance was broken. The number of cats grew rapidly. People trapped in it stopped leaving food and water.
Reports of cannibalism in cats made the rounds. What began as a local curiosity, even a tourist attraction, had become a public embarrassment and an ecological problem.
Something had to be done.
FUR FLIES OVER PLANE
Some of the cats approached the visiting city workers and rubbed their legs. Others ran up and down the bank, to and fro, to and fro. More eyed the outsiders cautiously from a distance.
The colony had the appearance of a cat-like slum.
Houses the size of cats left by volunteers were scattered, next to them jugs for collecting rainwater and bird feeders for cats that needed to be refilled. Brightly colored spiders, each the size of a baby’s palm, hung from webs strung between the furnishings. The coast was littered with rubbish.
“Bringing a cat here is cruelty to animals,” Mayhe said.
But since the shelters are full and many cats cannot be socialized, getting them back to the mainland would be just as complicated.
Mangaratiba officials weren’t sure they could carry out the plan they had come up with.
They wanted to send expeditions to explore the island and do a cat count. Then set up surveillance cameras to prevent leaving and prosecute the perpetrators. Then start neutering. And finally let nature take its course.
The docile cats would be adopted. The others would spend their lives on the island until there were none left.
The plan is controversial. The city’s health minister opposed feeding the island cats. That would encourage others to neuter their cats here.
“People attack me like crazy on Facebook,” Sandra Castelo Branco told the Washington Post. “But I want to change the paradigm.”
Joice Puchalski, coordinator of a volunteer group that feeds the cats, was furious. The animals did not ask to live on a desert island.
She said vultures were seen circling. How could people leave them again? She posted a screenshot of Castelo Branco’s comments on Facebook and let go: “LAMENTABLE”.
“How absurd,” agreed one of the dozen angry replies.
“The main illness that the secretary has is poverty of spirit,” said another.
But officials said the situation was more complicated than the absolutism on social media.
“It’s terrible,” said Fernanda Porto, the city’s environment minister. “Are we going to starve the animals or will we continue to feed them, which only creates incentives for more abandonment?”
Many of the cats grew tired of the visitors when they saw that the officers were not carrying food with them.
Some returned to the small accommodations. Others disappeared into the trees. Mayhe peered into the woods. There was no telling how many were in there.
Exploring the city had done little, but confirmed that there was still much work to be done.
Porto and the others got back on the boat. They started the engine and pushed out to sea. The cats retreated in the distance, moving shadows on a small island among many.