• Rae Gellel

I Once Stole a Cat - & I Don't Regret it. Here's Why

I have a confession to make: a few years ago, I stole a cat, and I do not regret it.

This was not something I did as part of my volunteer work for any charity or organisation. My actions were entirely my own, and I stand by them. Here's why. There’s a shop in Greenwich - I’ll be avoiding specifics throughout this story - that is notorious among local rescue centres. They are known for repeatedly obtaining cats that inevitably get lost, become pregnant, or are killed by cars. They do this because the cats offer a means of cheap vermin control for their shop. Each dead or lost cat is quickly replaced, sometimes with a kitten as young as eight weeks old. The lives of these cats all follow the same pattern - they’re locked at the back of the shop during opening hours, and then at closing time, they’re moved to the front of the shop to hunt rodents until the morning. Fresh from a litter of kittens, from the care of their mothers and company of their siblings, they are thrust into a life of almost total solitude, with little to no contact with either humans or other cats. Employees in neighbouring shops have grown weary of hearing them crying day and night. The cats are also not neutered, of course, so their desire to breed often compels them to escape. The shop is located on a busy high street, surrounded by main roads. As is inevitable, at least one has been hit and killed by a car: I know this because I once scanned the body of a cat in a nearby road for a microchip, and instantly recognised as a one I’d seen inside the shop. Another of this shop’s cats was seen walking on nearby train tracks. Many others have wandered and never returned. Some have become pregnant, and their kittens have at times been rehomed by local rescue centres. Other litters have vanished and have presumably been sold, given away, or worse. Thanks to scant legislation around the buying or selling of animals in the UK, websites like Facebook and Gumtree provide this shop with a near-constant supply of kittens. One dies or disappears, and within a few weeks, it has been replaced. Neighbouring businesses have complained about the shop multiple times, both to local rescue centres, the RSPCA and the council, but very little can be done. Even the RSPCA, who have the power to seize animals under certain conditions, have no legal recourse to take such drastic action in this case. Although the 2006 Animal Welfare Act stipulates that those responsible for an animal’s care are obliged to provide it with a suitable environment, one free from suffering, that allows for the expression of ‘normal behaviour’, the barometer for cruelty and neglect in the courts is very high. Seizures of animals and prosecutions are brought about only in extreme circumstances, when an animal is being actively hurt, is emaciated, unwell or injured and veterinary treatment isn’t being sought. The cat is not sick and has food and shelter. That is apparently sufficient. Failing to neuter a cat, despite the often terrible consequences for that cat's health, isn’t considered a ‘necessary’ veterinary treatment.

The public often gets frustrated with the RSPCA for failing to take action for animals that, in the eyes of most ordinary, moral people, are being neglected or mistreated. Sometimes, that frustration may be justified, especially when the RSPCA then seems to pursue investigations against less worthy targets. Other times, their failure to intervene may simply be the result of having to operate within the confines of woefully insufficient animal welfare laws. Because what this shop is doing is basically legal. Going online and buying cat after cat after cat is legal, and that’s in a country heralded as having some of the best, most progressive legislation related to animal welfare in the world. That should tell you all you need to know about what little legal protection animals are afforded worldwide. It should tell you all you need to know about why allowing animals to be sold to just about anyone, with no professional vetting or home checks, is a terrible idea. It might give you some insight into why rescue centres so vehemently spout the rhetoric, “adopt, don’t shop”. Because without any customers, backyard breeders cease to exist, and situations like this become less prevalent. Anyway, it was one of these cats that I stole. It didn't plan it, fate just threw one in my path, and I did what my conscience dictated that I should do.

It was around 6AM, and I had left my phone in an Uber during the journey home from a night out in Central London. I’d called the driver, and he’d asked me to pick it up at the point where the cab had dropped me off.

I’d boarded the bus there like a zombie, having had no sleep and plenty of alcohol a few hours prior. I met the driver, got my phone, and while I was walking back with the sun slowly creeping over the tops of buildings, I encountered someone I knew - someone who worked next-door to the shop with the cats. Someone who’d grown more exasperated with their behaviour with each new kitten, and had reported them multiple times. They told me that they’d seen a kitten howling in the street, outside this notorious shop. We both knew where it had come from, and we both knew what I had to do.

He looked so small in the empty town centre, completely bereft of people at the early hour. His white fur was grey with dirt. He was about ten weeks old and paced up and down in front of the closed shop, crying loudly, frantic.

When I scooped him up and put him inside my jacket, he hissed, then purred; he was confused, relieved, and frightened all at once. I examined the shuttered shop front and figured he’d escaped from a narrow gap that ran along the top of the awning. I knew that if I took him, he’d simply be replaced by another cat, and that cat would also have to suffer this shitty, shitty existence until it ran away or died. But how on earth could I return him to that? How could I take him home, comb the filth out of his fur, treat his fleas, make him safe and warm and loved for a few hours and then, when the shop opened - hand him over to resume a short, solitary life with people who didn’t give a shit about him? He would still be replaced eventually, either way; they all were.

It was unthinkable. So, I did the only thing that I could. My friend helped me find an empty wine box in the street to put him in, and another shop gave me some cardigans from their lost and found to tie it closed. Then I - we - got in a cab and headed home. About two months later, after the kitten was adopted, neutered, vaccinated, and had begun a new life in a home where he’d never be lonely, at risk, or used again, I walked past the shop, just as it was closing. As the shutters were being pulled down, in the encroaching darkness, I saw another young cat. It was staring out at the street as it rapidly vanished behind a sheet of metal. I was so angry and sad and disgusted.

There is something very wrong with the world, with our relationship with animals, when neglecting and exploiting a cat isn’t considered criminal, but rescuing one from that life is.


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