This is a heart warming article by Sandy Robins* in CatFancy Magazine that really reveals how animals can be ambassadors for kindness and love if given the necessary assistance. In this case, Rita Brock, a South African lady who would not accept the word “no,” gave the assistance needed to bring feline animal ambassadors to a maximum secirity prison, where they helped to soften the hearts and minds of prisoners.
I am presenting this article here with Sandy’s permission.
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Nestled in the foothills of the picturesque, vineyard-clad Constantiaberg Mountains in Cape Town, South Africa, in Pollsmoor Prison. The maximum security facility once housed Nelson Mandela, the country’s most famous political prisoner from the apartheid era who later became the country’s first black president. Today it houses murderers, rapists, notorious gangsters and a unique feral cat colony that impacts the lives of those around them.
The Cats’ Story
In the 1960s, Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid associates were taken to Robben Island, a desolate island prison six miles off the coast of Cape Town. The wardens, bored by their jobs and plagued by rats that infested the buildings, brought a handful of cats with them from the mainland as pets and put them to work taking care of the rats.
In the 1980s, after Mandela had spent 18 years on the island, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town, and the facility on Robben Island was closed with new plans to turn it into a museum and wildlife reserve. Meanwhile, the handful of cats that had been living there for the past few decades had multiplied into a feral population of hundreds, and suddenly the authorities were after them, claiming they were decimating the wildlife on the island. Out went a call to shoot them all.
Enter animal lover Rita Brock. When the story hit the headlines, Brock was appalled.
“The concept was out of line with the new focus on the island, namely to be a beacon of humanity,” she says. Together, Brock and the local SPCA went to the island to assess the situation firsthand. They couldn’t find a single cat. There weren’t even any footprints, leading Brock to believe that perhaps it already was too late.
Finally, SPCA members negotiated with prison authorities to get permission to conduct an extensive search on the island and remove every cat they could trap.
They were given a six-week permit and immediately went to work. Sadly, they only managed to trap 24 cats. In the end, only 15 cats were healthy enough to be relocated. But where to take them?
Somewhere along the line, somebody suggested Pollsmoor Prison, mainly because it has large, self-sufficient farmlands as a part of the facility,
It was agreed. The cats from Robben Island would follow in Mandela’s foot steps and go to Pollsmoor Prison. Their new home would be a barn net to a freshwater dam in some corn fields. Special feeding stations would ensure they always had food.
Too Many Cats
However, when Brock visited the prison for the first time to organize the feline relocation, she couldn’t believe her eyes. There were cats everywhere: disappearing into drains, peering out from behind rocks and hiding in the tall grass. She also noticed several sheets hanging out of the prison windows. She learned that many prisoners were letting starving strays come into their cells by hanging sheets for them to climb. The prisoners were looking after them and sharing their food with the hapless creatures.
That’s when I realized that, apart from simply releasing the Robben Island cats here and monitoring them permanently, I would also have to take care of all these other feral cats,
she says. Brock approached the authorities for permission to introduce a trap-neuter-return program and to supply the inmates with proper food and veterinary supplies to assist them with the feral cats they’d adopted. Surprisingly, they agreed.
I will never forget the day we released the island cats,” Brock recalls. “It was a moment of triumph, but when I saw them rushing off into the bushes, I felt I was losing my babies. My only thought was ‘Please let them be safe.’
Safe they most certainly are. Help has come from a surprising source: The prison wardens and members of their families have taken it upon themselves to assist with the daily feeding and to keep an eye on them while patrolling the prison grounds as part of their duties.
Brock has the aded ongoing responsibility of raising food donations to feed the cats, as well as supplying prisoners with flea treatments, de-worming pills and products to treat ear mites.
With her smile and gracious determination, Brock fought more red tape to get permission for CAT FANCY to visit the prison and interview inmates with feline companions.
The day I went to meet prisoner Wayne Hutchinson, his beloved cat Spookies had been missing for several days. When he alerted the warden at our meeting, the kind officer used his authority to launch a full-scale search through the prison section to locate the missing pet. She was found several days later, trapped on the roof of the prison, and reunited with her caregiver.
“She’s been living with me for a year,” Hutchinson says.
she’s totally stolen my heart and changed my life around. I have been going crazy without her. I was abused as a child, and she has taught me how to love and learn the errors of my ways.
Prisoner Gregory Henry brought his beloved tabby named Nibbles to meet me. Henry was making plans with Brock for his cat to go into foster care when he’s released, until he has organized a secure place to live and is able to take full-time care of the cat outside of prison.
“She really looks out for me,” Henry says.
If I am sleeping, she will come and nuzzle my neck to make sure I am OK. She also knows I hate cockroaches, and if one comes into my cell, she will show me where it is so I can get rid of it. She has taught me what it means to be considerate of others. Who knew I would learn life lessons from a cat?
Together these men and many other cat-loving inmates have worked tirelessly within the prison walls to teach other prisoners about animals ad have converted many gangsters (who previously only saw cats as objects for abuse in gang initiation ceremonies) to treat them as creatures to love and respect.
Making a Difference
While many prisons around the world allow inmates to have dogs, teaching them how to look after and socialize them to improve the animals’ chances of adoption into loving homes, the Pollsmoor Prison cats change the loves of everyone who comes into contact with them.
As for Brock, her work is never done. These days, she has a special pass giving her carte blanche to come and go through the prison gates. She has set up a free spay and neuter program to help prison staff living on the grounds take care of their own pets, and she is working to reduce the feral population by finding cats loving homes with the help of the no-kill rescue group The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS). The search for food donations and more volunteers is ongoing, yet Brock does it all with a smile and the satisfaction of knowing that one person can make a difference.
* Sandy Robins is an award-winning pet-lifestyle expert who appears regularly on TV, radio and in international publications. She is an obsessed pet owner to her cats Cali and Fudge.
For information about the Pollsmoor cats, email Rita Brock at tears.org.za. TEARS is a registerd South African organiztion.
© 2009 Linda Tellington-Jones