The Cat Lady of Caye Caulker, Belize
Beyond the sounds of the waves and the beat of the reggae music on Caye Caulker, you might also hear a “meow,” or maybe 86 of them.
This side of the island is home to P.A.W.’s, run by Madi Collins. She started the animal sanctuary after returning home from the United States.
One day in 2003, she was on the dock next to her home and saw a bag floating in the ocean. Four kittens were trapped inside. Madi jumped into the ocean to rescue the kittens and nurse them back to health.
“My life changed forever …” Madi told me. “People out here don’t want cats. They beat them or they throw them out in the ocean to die.”
Ten years have passed since then. As I visited her in November 2012, I saw the toll that working 12 hours every day has left on her. She said she feels pain, but the cats keep her going.
“If I die, who’s going to take care of them?” she said. “The culture here in Belize isn’t like the United States. People won’t think twice about abusing animals.”
Madi told me the story of teenagers who let loose dogs inside her sanctuary. They killed one of her cats. When she went to the police she said the officer told her, “And what do you want me to do about it?”
That’s one of the reasons why Madi knows she’s one of the only options for these cats on the island.
Madi’s day starts at 6 a.m. That’s when she feeds the stray cats that like to hang out on her property. A large pile of wood covers up an apparent hole in the fence where the cats will come inside the sanctuary.
“They get nervous around people and like to hide during the day,” she told me. But Madi would be back later when she let her cats out to make sure they don’t fight with the strays. To her, injuries mean vet visits, and vet visits cost money that she doesn’t have.
She’s already spending a majority of her money on food costs. This is also what she spends half of her day doing. She starts with the sick cats. They are kept in cages in a somewhat quarantined area. The cats’ illnesses vary, and some will die within a few months. Often times, all Madi can do is make them comfortable.
As we moved through the two rooms, she explained to me the culture that’s developed among these indoor cats. A white cat sits on top of a cage looking over the other cats.
“That’s Papa. He takes care of everyone,” she said.
Soon, I felt a tug on my jeans. One of the cats decided that my clothing and flesh was the perfect spot for its claws.
“Stop that!” she told the cat. “He needs to learn that not everything is a scratching post.”
It’s not all discipline with Madi. She loves each of these cats and each one has a name. I asked her how she keeps track of them.
“I just know,” Madi told me.
But Madi felt guilty as the cats come up to her. She cuddled some, but she knew that each cat isn’t able to get the attention it deserves.
“I’m only one person,” she told me. “When I first started, I worked non-stop. Then, I learned that I have to take care of myself first.”
This was when we broke for breakfast, but an hour later she was back to work in the main part of the sanctuary, dubbed “The Meow-tel.”
When she opened the door, the cats dashed outside to engage in their feline behavior. Sometimes, that was chasing mice. Other times, it was fighting with other cats. And when people are out, the friendly ones liked to cuddle.
After the cats exited, she closed the door and began cleaning. The night before, it had rained. Puddles of water had already formed on the floor. The low-ceiling roof was made of metal and looks like it could cave in any moment.
Madi told me that she had spent all the money that she had saved on her father and on building this sanctuary. But repairs have languished, and she can’t afford to pay workers to make the necessary renovations. A few wooden beams are all that keep this place from crashing to the ground.
We moved onto the next section of the cat sanctuary. Another group of cats were separated from the rest. She let one cat out of a cage and puts another one in its place.
“These two are brothers,” she told me. “They’re inseparable, but when they grew up, they didn’t like sharing the same cage.”
Madi moved to a cupboard to grab the cat food. She fed them a mixture of wet and dry cat food, but this day, she paid particular attention to two cats.
One had a tumor on his ear. To me, it looked like part of his ear is missing. Madi said she has to dress the wound every day. It may because of this extra attention that Madi tended to spoil him.
As the cat looks longingly at Madi and meowed, she gave him a helping of wet cat food. Later, the cat would ask for more, and Madi would oblige. Looking back, it seems like necessary soothing. A few months later, the cat died from his illness.
“He acts just like a normal cat,” she said. “I took him to the vet, and he said when he stops acting like a cat, that’s when he’ll need to be put to sleep.”
Other cats competed for Madi’s attention. She took notice of another cat she said has had digestive problems. Madi would feed this cat whatever food it wants just to keep nutrients in its body.
Madi and I talked for a while as she wrapped up her cleaning and feeding duties. We moved back to the door and tells me to get my camera ready.
When she opened the door, a dozen cats that were outside bound to their food bowls and begin chowing down. I smiled at how docile these animals become once they’re engrossed in their meal.
Madi moved on to let the other cats outside, and I excused myself to take care of other errands during the day. Madi would spend the rest of the day watching the cats, making sure they don’t pick on the strays or each other and then do research when it gets dark.
This is Madi Collins’ life, and when the sun rises tomorrow, this cat lady will continue her mission. She knows she must.
Disclaimer: I stayed at the cat sanctuary for 10 days, but I voluntarily wrote this story. If you’d like to help Madi with donations or volunteering, please visit her Web site.