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On Brazil's Island of Cats, Virus Led to Starvation

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All the local people knew Furtada Island was full of cats.

People left food for the cats and even brought tourists. Then the coronavirus crisis hit, and human support for the animals stopped. That is when fishermen witnessed something very sad: a group of cats eating dead cats.

Furtada Island is widely known as "Island of the Cats." It is just west of Rio de Janeiro and 20 minutes by motorboat from the city of Mangaratiba. It sits on one side of Brazil's Green Coast, an area known for its mountainous forests and hundreds of small islands.

Over the years, fishermen threw unwanted pieces of fish and unneeded catch onto the island to feed the cats. Other people left containers filled with water and store-bought cat food. That has helped the hundreds of animals stay fed.

A boat belonging to Animal Heart Protectors is anchored off Furtada Island, popularly known as
A boat belonging to Animal Heart Protectors is anchored off Furtada Island, popularly known as "Island of the Cats," where they deliver food and water to the cats in Mangaratiba, Brazil, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Mario Lobao)

Some of the cats on Furtada Island are new arrivals. They lack the skills of their wild-born relatives, which climb trees to raid birds' homes.

When the pandemic forced people to stay at home, tourism slowed and restaurants that serve seafood closed. Boat traffic around the island fell sharply — and with it, the cats' food and water supply.

Locals did not realize the situation on the island until the fishermen reported back in April.

"The number of boats fell, the number of tourists, and we saw the condition of those animals on the island," said 58-year-old Jorge de Morais. He works with a local group that rescues animals from abuse. So, we went to work, he said.

Volunteers from Animal Heart Protectors fill a dispenser with food for cats on Furtada Island, popularly known as
Volunteers from Animal Heart Protectors fill a dispenser with food for cats on Furtada Island, popularly known as "Island of the Cats," in Mangaratiba, Brazil, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

He and other volunteers asked local businesses for donations. In April, they started putting simple food and water dispensers on the island. The dispensers were made from plastic pipes.

Now, volunteers make weekly trips to add food and water to the machines.

Recently, de Morais and three others returned to the island, where thick plant life spills down to meet a rocky coast.

"Cats that are recently discarded, they're more sociable," said Joice Puchalski, the organizer of the group. You saw we can get close and touch them, she said. But not the wild ones. They all are hidden. "You see them at night, because of their eyes," she said.

Cats rest in the sun on Furtada Island, popularly known as
Cats rest in the sun on Furtada Island, popularly known as "Island of the Cats," in Mangaratiba, Brazil, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

The population of nearly 250 cats can be traced back to a man and woman who lived on the island around 20 years ago, Puchalski said. They left and did not take their two cats. So those animals did what most creatures, when left alone, would do. They had babies. As the cat population grew, people took notice. And some saw it as a place to leave unwanted cats from the city.

Brazilian officials are exploring ways to prevent people from leaving animals on the island. It is already a crime, but signs noting that have had little effect.

Karla de Lucas is responsible for animal protection in Rio state. She inspected the Island of the Cats in June. And she met with the Navy and environmental officials to explore punishments, a statement said. Last month, Brazil's Congress passed a law increasing the punishment for abuse of cats and dogs. Those arrested for the crime can serve up to five years in prison.

Cats rest near a shelter built for them by volunteers from Animal Heart Protectors on Furtada Island, popularly known as
Cats rest near a shelter built for them by volunteers from Animal Heart Protectors on Furtada Island, popularly known as "Island of the Cats," in Mangaratiba, Brazil, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

There are no freshwater springs on the island and limited drinking water causes kidney problems for the cats, Puchalski said. But the biggest problem is bites from poisonous snakes. Another animal, a kind of lizard, will also attack and hurt young cats. And some cats are injured when boatmen throw them onto the rocks.

The volunteers bring cats to the mainland, as needed, for medical treatment. They try to find someone to adopt each animal. If that does not happen, they bring it back to the island so they can help others requiring medical attention.

It is a job that is never finished, Puchalski said.

"We really need someone who can join forces with us to try to heal this criminality that, for us, is cruelty," she said.

I'm Alice Bryant.

The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Words in This Story

tourist – n. a person who travels to a place for pleasure

pandemic – n. an occurrence in which a disease spreads very quickly and affects a large number of people over a wide area or throughout the world

dispenser – n. a machine or container that lets you take small amounts of something

discard – v. to throw something away because it is useless or unwanted

trace – v. to follow something back to its cause, beginning, or origin

kidney – n. either of two organs in your body that remove waste products from your blood and make urine

snake – n. an animal that has a long, thin body and no arms or legs

adopt – v. to take a child (or animal) legally as your own child

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