Kittens on a Boat

One way or another, I’m pretty sure the abandoned kittens on the powerboat are going to die. We don’t know how they got there. The boat is on the next dock, and the kittens—there may be five or six—were discovered by another cruising couple who heard mewing as they strolled by. The boat itself is in an odd state, seemingly well cared for but with the cockpit sole pulled up to reveal the engines and no one on board. The very skittish kittens were peeking out from the engine compartment, and our friends speculated that a pregnant cat had crawled aboard and given birth. She must have nursed the litter long enough to get them on their feet, then her maternal instincts ran out and she stole away.

What to do? Our cruising friends fed the kittens canned chicken and tuna for several days and then moved on. Eric and I bought cat food and took over the feeding, and I called the few rescue organizations I found online. I didn’t hold out much hope. Having been a volunteer at our excellent animal shelter in Newport, RI, for many years, I know how difficult it is to find homes for an endless stream of unwanted animals even in the best of circumstances, which Puerto Rico is not.

Sure enough, none of the organizations I reached could help. They were already overwhelmed, underfunded and understaffed. One was a shoestring affair run by an elderly couple, apparently out of their house. Another had an adoption program but only for animals that were already spayed/neutered and had received all their shots. As the man on the other end of the line sadly explained to me, “People here don’t feel about animals the way you do.”

That’s not entirely true. The very fact that he and other like-minded individuals are striving to better the lives of stray dogs and cats means someone cares. There must also be a fair number of pampered pets in Puerto Rico, witness the shoppers we saw buying premium dog food and fancy cat toys in the Pet Smart store. At the same time, there are plenty of abused and abandoned animals in need of rescue in the United States.

But I understand what the man meant. Stray, starving and neglected animals are a fact of life in the Caribbean. We’ve seen them both on our present voyage and on past vacation trips. Wasted cats slinking through neighborhoods, lonely dogs cringing as if in fear of being beaten. In the United States, in most places, people would take action; there are hotlines and humane agencies to call. Here, resources are scarce, attitudes are different, and people just walk on by.

We could tell the marina office about the kittens, and they might in turn notify the owner of the boat. With the cockpit sole pulled up, his engines are exposed to the rain as it is. Why did he leave it like that? But catching the kittens won’t be easy. They hide deep in the recesses of the engine compartment, so their capture would require a net or trap. And once caught, what then? I’m afraid the owner and the marina would opt for the quickest solution—not a pleasant thought. So far, none of the neighboring boat owners seem to have noticed the squatters, though that situation surely won’t last.

Meanwhile, we are surreptitiously feeding the orphans, either before dawn or after dark. Leaning over from the dock, we leave cat kibble in an open plastic bag on the boat’s deck. The next time we check, the food is gone. The kittens appear to be about eight weeks old and are just big enough to jump from the boat to the dock. Once we leave and the food stops, they’ll be forced to leave their temporary haven and fend for themselves.

Maybe they’ll make it to a wooded area where they can hide out and hunt. But even for a full-grown stray, life is mean and often short. Hungry, fearful, with no shots or veterinary care, they suffer from fleas, wounds and illness. They get hit by cars and injured in fights with other  animals. They’re at the mercy of the weather and any cruel person they meet. They kill birds and can spread rabies. Worst of all, they reproduce unchecked, adding hundreds if not thousands more animals to the overpopulation problem.

What to do? Yesterday morning before dawn, I went to check on our charges. In the dark, they didn’t see me coming, and they were too engrossed in any case. Out in the open, they were pouncing and tumbling over each other, mini tigers in mock battle, furry acrobats. They were behaving like ordinary kittens, with no idea what lies ahead. But I do, and though I’d love it if I were wrong, I don’t see a happily ever after to this story. I do know we’ll see more of the same as we continue our voyage.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

P.S. – Last night, I spotted only one kitten. This morning, none.