The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue by Jennifer Pulling

Jennifer Pulling in Sicily Jennifer Pulling is a successful writer and playwright.  While writing a novel in Sicily, she encountered a cat with appalling injuries, and as no one seemed concerned, she too matters into her own hands.  The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue was born.

Jennifer has kindly agreed to write of her experience of her rescue work with the beautiful feral cats of Sicily.

Sick cat in AvolaSigns that summer is underway are the daily emails I receive from anxious tourists wanting to know how they can help a Sicilian cat.

When the feline in question is an apparently lost kitten, I’ll query: ‘Are you sure the mother isn’t around?’ It is also wise to check whether the cats are being fed by a gattara, a cat lady, as she will feel a sense of ownership.

However, there are occasions when the animal is obviously distressed and sick; then I pull out all the stops to help. Fortunately, I have gathered a list of local contacts: those rare animal friendly people and organisations that will collaborate with me.

Here is a peek at my Catsnip ‘case book’ over recent weeks. It contrasts the forever tomorrow attitude of Sicily with the valiant efforts of some individuals and volunteers. 

Bartek and Julie write from Tranpani. ‘A poor cat stuck in an old abandoned building has been desperately meowing all night but no one seems to care.’

I attempt to call the city police and the fire brigade but no reply. I ply my contacts with emails and, a day later, Viviana, volunteer for animal welfare ENPA responds. She’s checked out the site and thinks cats can come and go via windows. However, town hall representatives will make an inside site inspection. All we can do is wait and hope she was right.

friendly catJudith writes from Avola concerned about two stray cats near a supermarket.  ‘One is in a very bad condition, the other white one wanted to be petted all the time. Do you know a vet or animal shelter in Avola? Or what can we do?’

I contact Gabriella who runs animalsicilia. She spends days trying to find a volunteer who will help. Antonella gets in touch and mentions the name of the vet clinic, which collaborates with Avola-city officials and the whole system. Cats can stay at the clinic while they recover. Silence after that. Returned to Germany, Judith announces she wants to adopt the while cat. At the time of writing lovely Amelia, another ENPA volunteer, is trying to find this affectionate feline.

kitten with sore eyesFinally, a more positive story: Julie, writing from Catania, finds a cat family living in church grounds. One of the kittens is skinny with apparently infected eyes. Is it OK to take him to a vet? Together we source the vet, then Julie discovers the family ‘belongs’ to the local library, which feeds and waters them. ‘Her’ kitten’s eyes ‘look a LOT better than when I first saw him, dirty but fine. I didn't feel he was in exceptionally bad shape. To be honest I'm completely in love with the kitten. But letting him stay there and not to bother him feels like the better and less-stressing thing for him to do.’

Frustrating but sometimes rewarding, my fight for these felines continues and I’ll never give up. I’m happy that, at least, these compassionate tourists have a point of contact with Catsnip. 

Jennifer Pulling runs Catsnip for the neutering and treatment of feral cats in Sicily. She is the author of The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue (John Blake)  

Jennifer has a website on writing:

Feral cat in SicilyPoisoned? No! My vision of the last time I had seen Lizzie, lying so contently, blinking in the sunlight was harshly destroyed. Some cat hater had thrown down poisoned meat and she and her family were dead. My grief was followed by anger then by determination. Lizzie, I realised, represented a symbol, awakening my energy to act in these cats’ defence. And so, Catsnip was launched.

My first step was to consult people who were running successful neutering and treatment projects. Suddenly the world appeared thronging with these feisty women who did something practical for felines.

            Suzy Gale, animal welfare campaigner who’s run successful programmes in Cyprus, told me: ‘It involves a lot of hard work and heartbreak, too.’ 

            Undeterred, I opened a bank account and set about raising funds. I wrote to various charities, explaining my aims: ‘to take a team of vet, nurse and helpers to Sicily to treat and neuter feral cats, considering that the local authorities do nothing to ameliorate the problem’. To my delight they responded with grants.

            But where to operate?  I telephoned Elke.

‘I have an idea,’ she said at last. ‘Remember Ines, the woman who lived in the downstairs apartment where you stayed? She has a summerhouse – it’s big and secluded. It would be the perfect place. No one would see what we were doing.’

            ‘And the vet?’

            ‘Leave it with me.’

            Within days she was back to me. Yes, Ines had said we could use the summerhouse and she had managed to persuade an American friend, Frankie, who was a vet to volunteer his services. All I had to do was pay for his flight from the States.

Feral cat in SicilyI began to assemble the equipment I would need. There were traps and cages to order, which would be sent by road and delivered upon my arrival in Sicily. Guy, my sister’s vet, had given me a list of drugs and equipment I would need for the ‘surgery’.  I became increasingly bold in asking people to give me things. I wrote to several drug companies and some of them donated necessary medicines. My local hospital offered forceps and scissors. Other equipment I had to buy from veterinary supply firms.

Finally, I was faced with the problem of how to get the drugs and surgical supplies from the UK to Sicily. Here my ignorance proved a blessing: I had absolutely no idea of the nature of ketamine, the drug used by vets in the absence of inhalant anaesthetic. I knew nothing about its use as a recreational drug. To me, it was an item on my list of veterinary drugs and I treated it as such.  I shudder to think of what I was doing when I packed everything into a large box, covered it with brown paper and labelled it SICILIAN CAT WELFARE.

No problems! At the airport, I watched, relieved, as it disappeared into the chute. On the plane, I relaxed and ordered a glass of wine – I was on my way.

To read a review of Jennifer's book: The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue, click on the link:



Lizzie after her leg had been setThe rescue of a feral cat called Lizzie set me on a mission, which continues to this day. It has been one of many obstacles but also success. My eyes have been opened to the shadowy side of Sicily, a place I believed I knew so well.

I’m a writer and journalist and, in 2002 I was having a prolonged stay in Taormina, Sicily while I worked on a book. My friend, Andrew, came for a week or so and we took a trip to Castelmola, a little hill town village. The plan was to sit in a renowned old bar to taste vino al mandorla, almond wine.  Instead, Andrew suggested we explore the tiny side streets and darted ahead. When I finally caught him up I found he was staring at something in silence.

Lying on the ground was a small cat with a ghastly wound – a back leg so shattered the bones were protruding through the skin. As an ardent cat lover I knew I had to help. Many of the local people didn’t seem to care but I found a young man who suggested a vet he knew and allowed me to call him up. That was how I first met Giulio.  But he couldn’t come until the evening.

Armed with torch, thick gauntlets and a humane trap, he and I prowled the dark streets until finally we caught her. Then it was back to Giulio’s surgery where she flew round the room like a cat demented until he managed to sedate her and set the break.  While I waited I asked myself: why am I doing this? I knew the answer. Fate had somehow sent us down those narrow streets. Most people would have just left the cat to her fate.

Lizzie and friendThe question was where could she stay while she recovered? To Giulio’s amusement I said I would nurse her in the apartment. I dared not tell my landlady what I was doing and had a terrible job hiding any traces if ever she popped in. Lizzie, I’d called her Lizzie, stayed with me for three weeks. She suffered her imprisonment in silence under the bed, emerging to scoff the tasty morsels I offered. She was my first experience of feral cats and I had no notion of their nature.

They have an innate mistrust of human beings. The mother cats train kittens to be quiet and stay put. A meow might attract predators. They will also make their kittens wash and wash to remove the scent of food from their fur, which again could attract the enemy. Their games prepare offspring for the life of a feral. A mother may play roughly with the dominant male kitten, training him to be an alpha male. She will teach her kittens to go to the food dish, forever watchful and poised to run, should a human appear. It is a game, but one of survival.

I was exploring new territory on this the beginning of my journey.


Jennifer Pulling runs Catsnip for the neutering and treatment of feral cats in Sicily. She is the author of The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue (John Blake)  Jennifer has a website on writing:



Feral tortieLizzie’s leg was now well in place and I agreed it was time for her to return to her colony.

We found her street without difficulty and, setting down the basket, opened the door. Lizzie shot out, hesitated for a moment and then dashed away. Not even a thank you!

A slender woman appeared.

‘So it was you who took that poor cat to the vet? She is part of the colony I feed. I wondered where she had gone.’ She held out her hand. ‘I am Antonella. Please come in, I would like to offer you coffee.’

 Another cat lady! I accepted, made a pretence of sipping the coffee, wickedly black and strong. Yuck! Sicilians have a lethal relationship with caffeine. Not just a beverage, it is more like a constant companion.

‘Tell me about the cats,’ I prompted.

‘Ah, the cats!’ she smiled. ‘They are my babies. When I go out into the street with food they all come running. I have fed them since they were kittens. Poor beasts, so many people here dislike them and wish them harm. But what have they done? All they want is a bit of affection and enough food to eat.’

She paused and eyed me curiously. ‘You paid the vet to treat that cat?’

I nodded.

‘It must have cost a lot of money.’

I named the sum.

She shook her head. ‘That was very good of you.’

‘I can’t bear to see anything suffering,’ I replied. ‘Someone had to help her.’

Antonella’s gaze went to the crucifix hanging on the wall. ‘I too cannot bear suffering,’ she said.

Lizzie's motherA few days before I left for England I went back to Castelmola. I took the path that I now knew so well and there was Lizzie coming towards me. I opened a tin of Whiskas and she began to eat it. Then her mother, the pretty grey cat, arrived and tucked in. As I stroked Lizzie, I felt so happy. My little one could now lie and enjoy the sunshine. Her leg might never be quite the same again, but she was home with her mother and sister. I felt so glad I had restored her. Giulio had been right: she belonged here in her feral world, but there was a part of her I liked to think remembered me, affectionate in her own way. All I could do now was pray she would be safe.

The sun shone down onto that little road and I stayed with Lizzie another half-hour. Those weeks in the apartment had somewhat tamed her and, now she was returned to her small domain, she allowed me closer to her. I made to leave but came back again – I didn’t want to go. In the end it was she who got up and strolled away down those steps, oblivious to the pain of my parting from her.

‘Goodbye, Lizzie,’ I said. ‘Take care of yourself.’

There were tears in my eyes as I walked away.

Jennifer Pulling runs Catsnip for the neutering and treatment of feral cats in Sicily. She is the author of The Great Sicilian Cat Rescue (John Blake)  Jennifer has a website on writing:


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