No amount of bullying or obstacles will thwart Martha Kane’s mission to feed or rescue stray cats. As Malta last week marked World Day for Abandoned Animals, Ariadne Massa caught up with the feline champion.
Clutching five shillings in her fist, the nine-year-old girl set out to buy a school book, but the forlorn look on the puppy’s face as it sat in its excrement in the pet shop window drew her in like a magnet.
“Without a second thought I ran inside, gave the man all my money and ran home with my puppy, which I called Cheeky, to face the music. I was told off for not asking permission but the dog stayed,” Ms Kane recalls.
The family soon got used to little Martha’s sense of giving and devotion to animals. Her mother would tell her when she got her own home she would know what it really means to care for them and she would retort: “When I have my own home I’ll fill it up with animals.”
And that is exactly what she did. Her garden is lined with wicker baskets and food containers, her basement is the recovery ward for injured cats, while the top floor of her house has been converted into a feline penthouse where her pets can frolic around freely and get food and water on tap.
A few special ones – such as Ċetta, the seven-kilogramme ginger cat who looks like a stand-in for the overweight Puss in Boots in the film Shrek: The Final Chapter, and Mutley the black poodle – have pretty much full access to the house.
The cats that live in the ‘penthouse’ take it in turns to go downstairs, run around, fight with the other animals, break things in their path and dash back up.
Together with her untiring, supportive partner, Ms Kane cares for some 160 cats – strays in Sliema and Gżira, that all have names, as well as the ones she has homed. She opens about 70 tins of cat food a day and goes through a 15-kilogramme bag of dry food in 36 hours.
This comes at great financial cost and personal sacrifice – she has not been abroad for 20 years, pampering treats such as facials are non-existent, she cuts her own hair, and birthday and Christmas presents consist of cat food and medication.
“I cannot have it all. I get a lot of help from close friends, but you cannot have people help you and then see you leading a fancy life. If you need help you have to make sacrifices and I’m very happy to do it. I don’t call this a sacrifice because I enjoy doing it,” she says, with a persuasive smile.
“When you take care of animals you cannot be materialistic. I don’t spend anything on myself, but don’t trust me in a pet shop because when it comes to cat food and supplies for animals, I’ll spend all I have. I haven’t become like this; I’ve always been like this,” she adds.
Nothing disheartens her and her determination to feed or rescue a cat surpasses everything – she has been known to climb over walls and risk her neck a number of times.
Ms Kane, who is in her 50s (she refuses to reveal her age), has been taking care of cat colonies for more than 40 years. These days, she dedicates her dwindling energy reserves to the cats, having had to give up her day job following a serious car accident in 1994, which left her mobility slightly impaired.
She has also been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition of the joints and nerves, so she has had to adjust her life because, apart from the pain, she tires easily and suffers from sleep disorders.
She always makes it a point to schedule three important tasks a day with animal care at the top of her list, then organises her day depending on her energy.
“Cats are quite laid back and don’t bother too much about routine just as long as they have their basic needs and plenty of affection. They also motivate me and keep me from feeling sorry for myself; plus, I am lucky I have a wonderful understanding partner who takes over when it all gets too much,” she says.
She wakes up at about 4 a.m. every day to do the first feeding round in the colonies before the sun comes up. Then there are litter boxes and food bowls to clean, and medication to give. Then she spends 15 minutes giving the drip to Benjamin, a 19-year-old cat with kidney failure, and administering medicine to any feline in the ‘ward’.
Her home is spotless and, with the exception of a wall dedicated to photos of her furry friends, a kitchen counter piled high with cat medication and bagfuls of dried food tucked in every corner, it is hard to immediately realise she cares for so many cats.
“I have the good sense not to take on more than I can handle. The cats are very well kept – even the sick ones are well provided for and healthy enough to live comfortably,” she says, stroking Ċetta, who has just waddled out of her basket to lap up some water.
“We still have the mentality that animals are expendable. I believe God had a purpose when he created animals and then created humans. He created us to enjoy them, but what we’ve done is ruin the world,” she says lamenting cruelty to animals.
Each cat in her house has a story. Milo was rescued, with his eye dangling out of its socket, from children who were about to torch him; Speedy was taken in unable to pee and was given a sex change by a vet, and the list goes on.
Sometimes she finds cigarette butts floating in the cats’ water containers, or realises someone has urinated in it.
“I’ve found people doing foul things on purpose or putting disinfectant in their food. You don’t have to like animals, but don’t harm them,” she says, tucking wisps of her red hair behind her ears.
She shudders whenever she reads stories about cruelty to animals, but is relieved more people are becoming courageous enough to report these incidents and do something about it.
“We need heftier fines, but it’s still not enough for people like these – we need harsh prison sentences. If they’re underage and you can’t send them to prison I would get them mucking out in the animal sanctuaries. Animals do grow on you. Something will give and they will start to respect animals,” she says.
Ms Kane worries about strays whose population she believes swelled because homes with big gardens were demolished to make way for apartment blocks, while people did not want cats trampling on their landscaped patch.
So for years, together with like-minded people, she set out to control the numbers and she has neutered hundreds of cats.
“My ultimate wish would be that no animal is born unless they have a very good home to be born into, which means our neutering campaigns would have become 100-per-cent effective.”
These days she is a registered feeder and her goal is to educate those who cross her path. She is also on the animal welfare committee of the Sliema council, which has helped raise animal consciousness, but she still encounters bullies who try to stop her from doing her rounds.
“I don’t go and feed clandestinely. I don’t put bits and pieces of paper or leftovers. I go officially and carry my council tag and I don’t give in to bullying,” she says.
Ms Kane is very discreet, using dry food and taking along a little broom and rubbish bins around with her to keep the area immaculate. Her fiery Irish temper kicks in whenever somebody attempts to stop her, even if it is a burly foreman blocking her path.
“This guy once walked up to me and ordered me not to feed. I stood my ground because I had permission to be there, but he put his hands in his pockets and barged into me, pushing me to the ground. Instead of making a big fuss I used it to my own advantage. I didn’t report him but ordered him not to touch their food or their containers because I had a right to be there.”
Ms Kane has been threatened numerous times in her life, and to get to her people would threaten to kill or poison the cats, or move them elsewhere so she would not see them again.
“I don’t cower to threats and I try to explain that these animals have rights.”
As a rule, however, Ms Kane believes people are quite relieved there is someone who cares for strays, especially tourists, who often accompany her on the feeding rounds, taking photos of the “cute little faces” waiting eagerly for their bowls of food and water to be filled.
She believes in dialogue as she understands it must be irritating when somebody just enters a place and starts dishing out food and water.
When The Palace Hotel in Sliema was being built, she was feeding about 30 cats on the site. But they stopped her going in when the area was being excavated. Instead of making a fuss and insisting on going in, she set up a meeting with the proprietor and explained the situation.
“I understood it was for safety reasons but I needed to get in. The owner told me he had no problem with me feeding the cats and gave me permission. So the workers provided me with a hard hat. One day they found kittens and they kept them wrapped in a T-shirt in the high-up till I got there – people understand once you explain,” she says.
Sitting in her armchair, stroking Speedy, it is hard to miss the scars criss-crossing her arms like a jumbled pattern.
“Each of these scars tells a story of the animals I saved. I call them my war medals and like the veteran that I am I wear them with pride,” she says, giggling as she recalls the hours she spent attempting to rescue cats.
She has been in hospital attached to an antibiotic drip several times and the staff are used to her.
“When you grab hold of a cat that doesn’t want to be caught it will dig deep; the deeper the bite, the worse the infection. Sometimes I use my big gloves, but they’re impossible to use if the kitten is hidden in the engine of a car. So I grit my teeth and go in.
“The biggest joy is when you get an animal that is sick and dying and either save it or give it a dignified end. When they look into your eyes you see their love,” she says.
The thing that hurts her most is to see an animal suffer and she gets frustrated at people’s assumption that animals do not have feelings and capriciously take in strays then dump them back on the street if they do not fit into their life.
“This destroys them – they had a way of life that they had gotten used to but you changed all that by giving them affection and food and made them dependent,” she says with a frown.
She is very careful not to befriend the animals she feeds in the colonies so that they will not become emotionally dependent on her.
Ms Kane urges people to help feeders like her by doing small things that go a long way, such as collecting a tin from every resident in the street, or sponsoring a cat’s medication.
“Once, I got a trunk load of cat food from a classroom of children who, on their teacher’s encouragement, collected a tin each – it felt like Christmas for me. If you give me a gift, I nearly always wish it was cat food because that’s the way I think,” she smiles.
It is a policy of hers not to accept money, except from family and very close friends who know exactly what she does.
“I find people prefer to buy you what you need because that way they can be sure their contribution has gone directly towards the upkeep of the cats. Let’s face it, money doesn’t grow on trees and people cannot be blamed for being suspicious,” she says.
“I usually provide anyone who wants to help with the names of my suppliers, my vets, and my animal pharmacist – that way they can help the cats in any way they prefer without me ever having to touch one cent.”
If money were no problem her dream would be to build a beautiful sanctuary where animals could roam freely. But for those who wish to help, she has a more realistic wish list that includes little things like old towels or blankets for bedding, disused kennels for shelter, food, and a cat-loving carpenter who could help make their habitat a bit more comfortable.
Recently, she had to take the “heartbreaking” decision not to take in more cats due to her health and she prays more volunteers will come forward to carry on her work.
She has tried training somebody to take over, but many give up as the commitment necessary is too much to bear. She worries about who will take care of her cats if something happened to her and even going to Gozo for a day has become off-limits.
“The last thing I do before I go to sleep is pray to God to take them all before He takes me. I’m not scared of death because I know there’s a Heaven and hopefully that’s how I’ll get in... by taking care of His creatures.”
Those who wish to help Ms Kane can access her website: www.kittyappeal.org.