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Wanted, cat whisperer: the job ad that went viral

Feline feeling: Joan and Richard Bowell on Syros with some of their 70-odd furry friends who they have rescued from utter cat-astrophe. Photograph: Courtesy of Joan Bowell

When a cat-loving couple advertised for someone to look after 70 strays on a Greek island, they were deluged with CVs. Britt Collins reports on what happened next.

How’s this for a job description? Location: a small Greek island paradise in a nature reserve on Syros, with views of the Aegean. Own home. Job: to look after 70+ cats for four hours a day. Ideal candidate: “a mature and genuinely passionate cat lover” who enjoys tranquillity, nature and their own company. Desired skills: cat-whispering, feline psychology, veterinary experience. Driving licence. Remuneration: modest, but includes the chance to live a meaningful life.

It’s been inspiring, sobering and quite distressing ​at times ​to read people’s reasons for applying for the job

When Joan Bowell, founder of God’s Little People Cat Rescue, posted her job offer on the shelter’s Facebook page last month, she asked for others to share the post “far and wide”. The ad went viral. Today, she and her husband, Richard, have had to draft in five volunteers to help them sift through the 35,000 applications.

“We couldn’t have imagined this kind of response,” says Joan, 51, originally from Denmark and known locally as the Cat Lady of Syros. “But it’s been inspiring, sobering and quite distressing to read people’s reasons for applying. We’ve had refugees wanting to find a way out of war zones and people from Russia and India who have reached a low point and feel unable to continue caring for their own animals, which they can’t afford to feed.”

The job comes with a small house on a long, tree-backed sandy stretch with winding lanes and wildflowers, a car, all expenses paid and a salary of £450 per month. Among the hopefuls convinced they’re “reliable, responsible, with a heart of gold and able to handle feral and unsociable cats”, there’s a self-described catman from Australia with cat-whispering superpowers; a US air force veteran who can “add in security” to the position; a teenager from Mexico with a passport and permission from her parents; a writer from Seattle who writes poems for his cats; yet another cat lover who says, “I’m probably the person that is most unqualified for the position. I am 49 years old and really not sure what to do with my life. But I’ve aways raised cats”; and a woman from Indonesia, who wins the prize for the shortest-ever application: “Want job. Please call.”

Up to scratch: stray cats and kittens were not always treated kindly on Syros before the sanctuary was established.

Joan, an artist and former businesswoman, and her British husband Richard, 65, peace activist and author of the forthcoming An Urgent Plea From the Future, first came to Greece on holiday 20 years ago. Today, the population of Syros is estimated at 25,000 people; stray cats number about 3,000. “I couldn’t stand how bad they looked and the appalling conditions they lived in,” recalls Joan, all of whose cats are neutered. Cats and kittens were being poisoned, burned, drowned, thrown off mountains and left in the rubbish to die. Others were missing legs or ears, blinded by eye infections, or being eaten alive by fleas. “Cats in Greece are considered pests, like rodents. We spent our holidays feeding them, rushing them to the vet and giving them medication. Leaving them behind was terrible. We talked about how wonderful it would be to build our own house and help the cats.”

One day, Joan came across the Cat House on the Kings, a rambling riverside compound for 1,000 strays in southern California. Shortly afterwards, in 2011, the couple sold their house in Denmark, moved to Syros and turned a rugged parcel of land into their own haven for wild and homeless felines. The plan was to take it slowly when it came to improving the lot of the island’s cats. “But the moment we arrived, there were two sick feral kittens in the garden. After that, it never stopped, and within the first year we rescued 30,” she says, sitting on the terrace beside Richard. “It was overwhelmingly sad how many lived around trash bins scouring the garbage and fighting over scraps. I started feeding a colony by the local dumpsters.” Word got around about what she was doing and locals started discarding litters of newborn kittens by the trash. “People also come here for the summer, feed the strays and leave them. Come winter, these cats start coming into our garden because they don’t know where else to find food.”

Today, the cats come and go in a garden that tumbles down to the sea. A pair of gingers stretch out like lionesses beneath a tree. Others lie along a stone wall, napping in the sun. A clowder of tabbies and tortoiseshells perch on bales of hay in the open-air bunkhouse, watching birds and butterflies. Joan talks about the constant heartbreak of regularly finding wounded and unwanted cats, sometimes so sick and emaciated she has feared they won’t make the journey back to the house.

Funding the shelter has been a struggle. They have done so by selling Joan’s illustrations and through small donations. “Halfway through building, we ran out of funds,” says Richard. “We expected to get loans from the bank. But we arrived in the middle of the Greek financial crisis and couldn’t get one. We found ourselves broke. We couldn’t even buy a coffee, and had to ask the vets to work and give us food for the cats on the promise we’d pay when we had some money. Our electricity was cut off for weeks, but the days were warm and the cats didn’t mind.

“One day, some money blew on to the land – a €10 note. I held it up and said: ‘Where did this come from?’ because I didn’t want to take some Greek person’s pension. The €10 didn’t buy much, but it was something at a time of nothing. We bought a croissant and some coffee. We wanted to feel a bit civilised again.”

The symbolic windfall, small as it was, coincided with a shift in attitudes when it came to helping stray cats. “The island was slowly changing,” says Richard. “Little by little, things got better.”

“Cat rescue is not an easy business,” he continues, looking back on the last seven years. “It has taken us to the edge of exhaustion, but we love it more than feel the tiredness of it. Joan and I come out of the same beliefs. It’s not a religion or anything. But while we’re here on earth we’re going to do whatever we can to contribute in a meaningful way to a new, more humane world.”

The number of strays in their small house and garden has now topped 70. Meanwhile, Richard’s projects for the United Nations require him to be in New York. That is why they decided to seek help. “We knew we’d have to leave Greece some day,” says Richard, “especially because we took the position that we would never put a cat down unless it was suffering and dying.”

Naturally, the preferred candidate must be a cat and nature lover. “It’s difficult because most of the applications are from genuine cat lovers,” says Richard. “But this job requires more: someone who can recognise if a cat is unwell, take them to the local vet and give medications. If they talk about the opportunity only for themselves, we tend to put those aside.”

The ideal candidate, he says, will “feel a sense of privilege, a reverence for life. Unless the person has a deep empathy for the feelings of a cat, they will not connect to them. One has to want to offer service to the establishment of a new line of humanity between humans and ‘God’s little people’.”

“We want someone to continue our vision,” adds Joan. “We’ve made a positive difference in the community and now you rarely see distressed cats on Syros.”

We’ve made a positive difference in the community and now you rarely ​ever ​see distressed cats on Syros

The couple now want to open a larger sanctuary and are currently trying to raise $200,000 to establish the American outpost of God’s Little People Cat Rescue in a farm setting in upstate New York. “We want to rededicate ourselves to the cause in a bigger way, to show the world that animals count and that the way we treat them reflects something of our own humanity.” The couple write on their Facebook page: “Our Greek sanctuary can’t take more cats, which is heartbreaking, so we need to move on. We have already identified some worthy causes in the Manhattan and greater New York area where cats desperately need help.”

Television stardom might help: Endemol Shine Studios, the creators of TV hits MasterChef and Dancing with the Stars, want to develop the story of the project into a TV series. As Richard explains: “They think there’s a special kind of magic about it.”


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