San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Cats Capture Prisoners in Puntarenas

IN the Pacific port city of Puntarenas, it is men in prison who take care of abandoned baby kittens and post-operative cats – and the cats themselves initiated the unusual project.


According to Danilo Mesén, director of the Puntarenas prison, wherever there’s food you’ll find cats coming around – and Puntarenas is full of cats.


Several factors contribute to this. The city has a warm climate, making closed buildings uncomfortable. Although the prison is surrounded by chain-link fences and watched over by guards, the dining area and kitchens that prepare more than 400 meals several times a day leave windows open, and the emanating appetizing smells appeal to both men and beasts. The guards may keep the men in, but they can’t keep the cats out.


Then, too, Puntarenas is a port city with a fishing industry, which attracts cats, and the fecundity of felines is phenomenal. One pair with their descendants can produce as many as 15,000 offspring.


So, the prison had a pretty hairy problem with all the cats coming around. Inmates are not allowed to have personal pets, but some of the men began taking care of the cats, giving them food, water and attention and sharing their beds. Still, something had to be done about all the squatters.


MESÉN called in the McKee Project, a program that provides low-cost spaying and neutering in communities. In Puntarenas, the program is carried out by the team at El Trópico veterinary clinic, doctors Vilma Soto, Francisco Gómez and Rita Coghi. But would they come out to a prison to spay a bunch of street cats?


They would and they did, and it marked the start of a project within the prison. The men now trap roaming cats using humane traps provided by McKee and fully fragrant fish as bait. The vet team picks up the captured cats, operates on them and notches their ears so they aren’t brought back a second time. The prisoners care for the cats until they are totally recovered, and then release them.


Unlike their hosts, the cats are free to leave. The opossum that wandered into a cage one night was released without being spayed.


Another part of the project is the incubator, a newspaper-lined laundry basket full of kittens, some only a few weeks old, that have been abandoned or orphaned. Here they receive tender care, cradled in the large hands of men who feed them kitten formula from special kitten bottles provided by the McKee vets.


It’s not always easy feeding kittens seven times a day and capturing those that escape from the laundry basket, say Martín Gómez and Carlos Fuente, two of the kitten keepers who monitor their charges’ health and report any problems to the vets. It takes patience and tenderness. When the kittens are old enough – about three months – they will be spayed and neutered and returned to the prison to recuperate. Visitors’ days are adoption days for the kittens. They go fast once they are spayed and neutered.


“There’s even a waiting list,” McKeevet Soto says.


THOUGH cats are more common, two street dogs have found a home inside the prison fence. Macha and King were ugly messes when they first came around, says Gerardo González, who takes care of the dogs and has trained them to follow commands. Now he’s proud to show them off and plans to take them home with him when he’s released next year.


“The program here is a success, both for the men and the animals,” Mesén says.


The veterinarians agree. After being featured on Channel 11’s popular “Informe 11” program, the prison received requests from other institutions about starting similar programs. Mesén says they are considering a wild animal shelter for injured and stray animals, adding that sometimes deer come around, too. The project would work in cooperation with existing wildlife organizations, encourage the prisoners to take care of animals and provide entertainment on visitors’ days.


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