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Norwich Bulletin - 11/1/2010

The Cats of Panama City

I recently judged a cat show in South America and spent eight days in Panama City. The people love their cats and enjoy showing them off in much the same way that we do. My best in show was a simply gorgeous Persian that was playful, friendly and groomed to perfection. But that is the side of Panama all of us judges see when we come here. It’s the side that we all want to see. However, there is another side and it involves the poor people and the feral cats and dogs.

Panama appears to have two types of people. The rich and the very poor. Going through the streets of Panama we saw beautiful houses with high fences, two feet of barbed wire on top of the fences, and military police with machine guns on every corner. On either side of the beautiful protected homes were tenement houses, the like I have never seen before. And on every porch, and on every street corner, were either stray dogs or stray cats.

There are no leash laws in Panama so the dogs tend to run in packs. They are medium sized dogs that are very leary of humans, although they know that they will be fed every night by some kind soul. The same with the cats. We walked into an alley with fish and before we knew it, there were ten cats surrounding us waiting for a handout. Almost every cat had a tipped ear, letting us know that it had been sterilized. And that is how we learned about Spay Panama.

In 2002 a Panama Canal financial planning officer retired and decided to work with the animals. Patricia Chan saw the growing population of stray cats and dogs living on the streets and she saw a need for low-cost neutering services for cats and dogs. The project took off and has since sterilized over 30,000 animals. There is a modern veterinary operating room in Bethania, where most of the sterilizations occur.

The facility is not a shelter or a clinic. Every Wednesday and Saturday, cats and dogs (mainly cats) are sterilized at the facility. Males are released after one day and females stay for five days to recover. Many of the animals are brought in by people who are willing to keep them but cannot afford any vet care. Many others belong to no-one.

The trappers that belong to the organization work alongside the everyday people who feed the strays. They use the have a heart traps, take the cats to Spay/Panama, sterilized them, deworm and vaccinate and then mark them with a notch in their ear. Hopefully there are people to take them home but those who cannot be placed into a home, are taken back and released. In the historic part of Panama (Old Panama City), they have made a huge dent in the overpopulation of cats.

We saw the cats who live at the convent being fed by local residents. We saw the cats who live in the alleys, sleeping under parked cars and in shady corners to escape the very hot sun. None of them ran from us and if we talked to them, they would wait around to see if we had something worthwhile to offer them in the way of food.

Spay/Panama also has a relationship with the nation’s prison system and the police agencies. Several cats are brought in by the police. Many of the cats (and some dogs) live at the Penitentiaries throughout the country, and groups such as the US Embassy dependents, will help monetarily to take care of sterilizing these animals. Many times a sick or injured animal will be nursed back to health and Spay/panama will also provide medicines for people who feed the street animals that become ill.

One of the most important things that the organization does is to teach people to take responsibility for their animals. People who feed outdoor cats and people who have pet cats need to realize that they need to alter their animal because if not, sooner or later, those babies will end up on the street. So the main mission of course, is to over spay and neuter services to poor families, rescuers and the street feeders, and in this way, control the number of animals that roam the streets suffering.

There is no membership per se for Spay/Panama. Anyone who has an interest in controlling the overpopulation of the animals is welcome. Spay Panama has worked out an interesting volunteer program for veterinarians and vet students to enjoy another culture and at the same time make a difference for the less fortunate dogs and cats in Panama. Vet students get hands on experience they could not get anywhere else.

And of course, if you cannot go to Panama, you can still help. Spay/Panama’s actual cost to spay or neuter a dog is $20 American money and a cat is $10. A simple gift of $10 (which can be sent by Paypal) can make a difference in the life of a homeless cat. You can log onto www.spaypanama.org if you are Spanish Speaking.

If you need English translation then just click on the American Flag. There are also local groups on the left – when I was in Panama, we donated to Angeles, which was a local group in Panama City. Just take a look at the little orange tabby “gatos” that I photographed at the Panama wall and I know you will want to help.

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