SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hundreds of stray cats that roam a historic seaside tourist area of Puerto Rico’s capital where they are considered both a delight and a nuisance will be removed over the coming year, under a plan unveiled Tuesday by the U.S. National Park Service.
The agency said it will contract an animal welfare organization to remove the 200 cats estimated to live on 75 acres surrounding a fortress at the San Juan National Historic Site that the federal agency operates in Old San Juan. If the organization fails to remove the cats within six months, the park service said it would hire a removal agency.
Cat lovers responded to the plan with dismay, but the agency noted that the felines can transmit illnesses to humans. “All visitors will benefit from the removal of a potential disease vector from the park,” the park service plan stated.
The six-month timetable to remove the cats is unrealistic, said Ana María Salicrup, secretary of the board of directors for the nonprofit group Save a Gato, which currently helps care for the cats and which hopes to be chosen to implement the plan.
“Anyone who has worked with cats knows that is impossible,” Salicrup said. “They are setting us up for failure.”
Cats of all sizes, colors and temperaments meander the seaside trails that surround a 16th-century fortress known as “El Morro” overlooking an expanse of deep turquoise waters in the northwestern point of the San Juan capital.
Some are believed to be descendants of colonial-era cats, while others were brought to the capital by legendary San Juan Mayor Felisa Rincón de Gautier to kill rats in the mid-20th century. Since then, they have multiplied into the hundreds to the enchantment of some residents and tourists, and the disgust of others.
Visitors can be seen snapping pictures of cats daily as residents and volunteers with Save a Gato tend to them. The group feeds, spays and neuters cats, and places them into adoption.
About two years ago, federal officials said the cat population had grown too much and that the “encounters between visitors and cats and the smell of urine and feces are … inconsistent with the cultural landscape.”
Last year, the U.S. National Park Service held a hearing as part of a plan it said would improve the safety of visitors and employees and protect cultural and natural resources. It offered two options: remove the cats or keep the status quo.
Those who attended overwhelmingly rejected the first option, with one man describing the cats as “one of the wonders of Old San Juan.” The cats even have their own statue in the historic area where they roam.
“These cats are unique to San Juan,” Danna Wakefield, a solar contractor who moved to Puerto Rico in 2020, said in an interview. She visits the cats weekly. “Me and many other people love that walk because of the cats. Otherwise, it would be a very boring walk.”
She has three favorite cats, including a black one with golden eyes that she nicknamed “Cross.”
“He won’t have anything to do with anybody,” Wakefield said with a laugh.
The U.S. Park Service plan unveiled Tuesday calls for current cat feeding stations to be removed unless they’re being used temporarily to help trap the felines. It noted that unauthorized feeding of the cats is prohibited, that it attracts rats and encourages people seeking to abandon their cats to do so in that area, knowing they’ll be fed.
The agency plan says the animal welfare organization that’s selected will be tasked with deciding whether the trapped cats will be adopted, placed in a foster home, kept in a shelter or face other options.
Salicrup said it’s difficult to find homes for so many cats, and that Save a Gato has reached out to many sanctuaries in the U.S. mainland. “The response always is, ‘You cannot bring 100 cats here,'” she said.
The National Park Service noted that the six-month deadline to trap cats could be extended if it sees substantial progress. If not, the agency would terminate the current plan and hire a removal agency.