Cats, Snails and Prickly Pears.
Here’s another little question for you. What have cats, snails, and prickly pears got in common?
You don’t know? I thought you wouldn’t, because I myself have only discovered the answer recently.
All three are very dear to the hearts of the Maltese.
Now, before I ever set foot on this little island, if I had been posed the question: what do you know about Malta? Of course, being the honest joker that I am, I’d have to say in typical Irish impish guff: “Sweet feck-all!” But that’s not entirely true, because for as long as I can remember, for some unknown reason, whenever the word Malta was mentioned, three things flashed into my mind: the Order of Malta, the Maltese Bus, and the Maltese cat. Why? Simply because they were famous around the world.
I have ranted on enough about the first two, so I must now pay homage to the little furry ‘dotes’ that for centuries have roamed the undergrowth of Malta’s countryside, and nestled in the hearts of its people. Firstly, I want to lay my cards on the table and say that I have nothing but admiration for the Order of Malta, and I’ve always been fascinated by the Maltese Bus, but cats – even the world famous Maltese ones – have never endeared themselves to me. I have a huge prejudice against them – probably unfair – and dismiss everything positive about them, because I can’t bring myself to forgive them for their ability to create the most foul odour the world has ever known: cat’s pee. Now, please don’t accuse me of racial bias, Irish cats have the same obnoxious powers, but of course, if it can be proven to me – after some infallible scientific experiment – that the Maltese cat’s urine is more nose-friendly, I’ll gladly revise my opinion, and take appropriate retribution. I have my doubts.
No, as cats go, to me they are all the same, but I will concede that the ones I’ve seen here are, for the most part, a pretty good-looking lot, and certainly a credit to the dedication and nurturing they receive from the Maltese ‘cat-mothers.’ Last year I happened to be returning to my hotel after a little stroll early one evening, and as I rounded a corner where on one side was a bit of greenery – a grassy area with some shrubs and low bushes – I was confronted with an entertaining performance, as good as any little theatre production that you’d pay money to see. Mammy-cat, surrounded by her baby-cats were having a little party, and it was a delight to behold.
I worked it out that it was dinnertime for cats, and all the locals were present and correct. The elderly lady was hosting the banquet, and twenty guests – I counted them – of all shapes, sizes, colours and demeanours, were tucking into scrumptious grub, so delectable, I almost felt peckish myself. Her little Ford Fiesta was parked by the kerbside, with the boot open, from which she magically extracted tin after tin of ‘Kitty Kat’, ‘Paws’, ‘Whiskers’ and various packets of other delicious delicacies, piling it on to twenty plastic plates, that she had already laid out. It was akin to the ‘Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes,’ the only thing she neglected to provide was serviettes, and I could see by the snouts and whiskers of some of the more gluttonous ones, that they could have done with them.
The cats, well, I’m no expert in feline study, but they appeared to be a mixture of cross-breeds and hybrids, with a variety of colours and characteristics. Some were fat and cuddly, others were long and skinny, some had a friendly, placid demeanour, but a few had that wild, threatening stare that I blame for giving ‘cat’s eyes’ a bad name.
The cat-mother was so absorbed in her ‘waiting and serving’ that she didn’t notice the nosy Irishman watching her every move, so in response to my little cough, she turned, smiled, and I was able to deduce that she was neither loony, demented, or otherwise retarded, just a kind old lady dedicated to the care and welfare of her feline family of appreciative babies. I gingerly took a few steps forward and ventured a little chat with her, which she kindly engaged in, but without eye contact as she was too busy, and anyway, I was only an extra in this little theatrical scene. I’m glad I did, because I soon realised that I was conversing with, not only a devout feline missionary, but an authority on the cat culture of Malta, reeling off statistics, procedures, and matters of policy ad lib – a mind-boggling fund of knowledge that surprised and impressed me greatly.
I learned that Malta has hundreds of thousands of cats living wild, and being cared for by a myriad of charities, and regulated by several prominent animal welfare organisations such as ‘Happy Paws,’ (what a name) ‘Noah’s Ark,’ and ‘Island Sanctuary.’ The country is also saturated with ‘Charity Shops’ run by teams of dedicated women – most of them retired British, permanently resident in Malta – and evidence of the generosity they receive is reflected in the booming trade they generate. This fundraising, together with donations and legacies, is what keeps the cats fed, but now they have embarked on an even more expensive money-eating project: the neutering of all stray cats. Bloody spoilsports – no more fun for the poor cats. One statistic my cat-mother friend imparted to me just knocked me off balance. I couldn’t believe it – and I bet you will find it incredible too – that one unneutered female cat could be the source of 420,000 cats over seven years. That is some cat-sex! No wonder they have to ‘nip it in the bud.’
It was time to leave my learned cat-professor, but before I did, I committed one of those stupid bloomers that over the years has cost me money and dignity. Casually, I asked: “How do you finance the purchase of all this cat food?” She straightened up with a sudden jerk, dived towards the car boot, retrieved a large round collection box, thrust it in front of me, with a pleading expression that said: “You will be generous Sir, won’t you.” After a frantic search of every pocket had only yielded thirty cent, I reluctantly and painfully had to revert to the wallet. Opening my big mouth cost me a lovely ten Euro note – of my scarce resources – and although I am now an expert on Maltese cats, I would never have dreamt that I would end up one of the largest cat benefactors in all of Malta.