New Mexico's Pet Resource SPECIAL WEBSITE REPORT 2002


Acropolis Meow: In the shadow of ancient ruins, the cats of Rhodos endure

text and photos by Derek Bousé and Wiltraud Engländer

(click any image to enlarge)



In the Rhodos airport, still trying to get a feel for solid ground, I watched as a strange woman approached. “Sima?” she asked. Only after I had muttered a rude “no” and turned away did it dawn on me that she had said “Zimmer.” Seeing that our flight had come from Munich, she was asking in Greek- accented German if we needed a room. We did. I changed my answer to “ja” and within a few minutes we were on our way.

Green. Everything was green. Some say Rhodos is the greenest of all the Greek islands. The vegetation is thick and varied throughout, and the although the mountains are not as high as those on Crete or Cyprus, they still contain impressive pine forests. Also, there is no water shortage. Abundant springs supply the island’s towns and villages all year round.

A portion of the wall that surrounds the old city at the center of Rhodes,
and two of the cats who live inside it.

And, of course, there are cats. Countless feral cats. We encountered them nearly everywhere, from the crowded harbor at Rhodes (where the Colossus is said to have stood), to the quiet streets of mountain villages, to the crumbling ruins of ancient cities.

Scenes from the Rhodes harbour, adjacent to the walled old city.

Someone had told us that many of the cats on Rhodos were exotic looking longhairs. The island lies just off the coast of Turkey, so we wondered if they might be descended from the same ancestors as the Turkish Angoras that had been bred there several centuries earlier. There did seem to be more longhairs on Rhodos than elsewhere, although the impression was not overwhelming.

No, that distinction went to another category of cat: the small, kittenish adolescent who turns out to be a lactating mother - with a litter of nursing kittens hidden somewhere. Kittens having kittens - that, not longhairs, became the indelible image of the island’s cats. Indeed, there were litters secreted everywhere. One had only to poke around a bit, and there they were: a few weeks old, barely able to walk, and about to enter a world of hunger and disease. And, of course, some already had. As charming as kittens always are, there was no joy in finding them; each new discovery was only more depressing.

Kittens hidden among the garbage in a back alley of the old city.


Although we have marveled at the stunning photographs of Greek cats in Hans Silvester’s books, they are usually shown in pristinely clean settings. What we have found, however, on Rhodos as well as on several other islands, has been different. The cats tend to congregate less in scenic tourist areas than in squalid back alleys and abandoned spaces, often where rubbish is discarded. Each of these informal dump areas, as well as every public dumpster or bin, had its resident cat population. We learned to think of almost every vacant lot, however overgrown with weeds and scattered with junk, as potential cat country. Human neglect meant, in effect, safe haven.

The rubbish scavengers were often wary of the food we put out.

Whenever we opened a can of food for what seemed to be an isolated, solitary cat, more would appear miraculously from out of nowhere. Soon we knew several small colonies in Rhodes. Each had several lactating females and unneutered males. At some places we found water and dry food supplied by friendly locals, but the cats there were rarely neutered.

Around the harbour things were a different. Here the cats were generally better fed and more healthy looking, and most of them were neutered. For here, in one of the most visible public areas, is where the local (and relatively effective) animal welfare group concentrates its efforts.

Unneutered, battle-scarred males in the back alleys of the old city.


After a few days in Rhodes city, we took a bus south to the picturesque village of Lindos, an elaborate maze of narrow, winding paths amid whitewashed houses. Minutes after our arrival we were approached with an offer of a “sima,” and were led along a twisted, uphill path. The place had a spectacular view of the village, and of its main attraction: the giant mound of rock that looms over it, and upon which sits the great, towering Lindos Acropolis. Although far more spectacular than the Rhodes Acropolis, its Temple of Athena and massive columns had all crumbled in an earthquake long ago - but, as elsewhere around the island, the Italians had reconstructed some of the ruins during the 1930s. In the mountains, at Profitis Illias, they even built a mountain resort complex of secluded, chalet-style hotel buildings, complete with a clay tennis court carved into the mountainside - all now abandoned. This flurry of activity throughout the island by the Italians was undertaken in anticipation of a visit by Mussolini. Unfortunately, il duce never showed.

Back at Lindos, we walked up to the Acropolis on a windy evening, and were pleasantly suprised to find ourselves alone among the ruins. Soon, however, we were greeted by a charming, friendly, and very hungry little cat - another young mother with a hidden brood to feed.

The Lindos Acropolis from below, and from on top --
where its sole inhabitant came to greet us.


Below Lindos, along a narrow dirt path leading down to a secluded little beach, a friendly orange and white cat appeared from nowhere and ran right up to me, chirping and purring. “What are you doing down here?”, I asked as I bent to stroke her. In response she rubbed at my legs and looked up to me like my cats at home do at feeding time. “Have any food for me?”, she seemed to ask. Of course I did. But one look underneath this skinny figure showed the inevitable: she was a lactating female, undoubtedly with kittens hidden somewhere nearby. I poured out a liberal amount of food for her, which she devoured with great appetite. Soon another one appeared, with almost the same coloration and markings. Yet, unlike the small skinny mother with her scruffy fur, and on whom I could feel every rib, this second one had good fur and was rather round. I thought she must be pregnant.

Every morning and evening I went back to “Katzi beach,” as we called it, to feed them. I soon found what set the healthy looking female apart from the boney, shaggy young mother. One of her ear tips was missing, indicating that she had been “done” (spayed). She wasn’t pregnant at all, but was just a healthy, moderately well-fed cat! What a striking difference there was between this one and the young, nursing mother, who seemed so physically worse off.

Above: “Katzi beach,” at Lindos. Below: the “twins” who lived there.
The differences in their conditions were obvious.


I could not find where she had her kittens, but every time I came down the path she was there waiting, greeting me enthusiastically and running ahead to the feeding place I had selected. She would have made a great pet in someone’s home! I was worried about how she would make it to raise her litter. On the last morning, after she had eaten, she led me to her kittens. They were hidden between the rocks down near the beach - three of them, about 3 weeks old. Two had some smear in their almost closed eyes; one looked a bit more healthy. All three needed checking. Our bus was leaving in two hours, and I tried to figure out what I could do to get the whole family to Rhodes city for the kittens to be checked and the mother to be neutered to give her a chance to survive and lead an easier life.

The Katzi beach mother leads us to her kittens, hidden among the rocks.

By this time, however, Derek had become seriously ill, and it did not seem that we could take this family on the bus, let alone bring them back again. As I stood thinking about all this, a young woman appeared, and I started talking to her. I showed her the kittens and the mother. She was from Britain, but was staying in Lindos all season. She sensed my concern about the little family and said she would take them all to the vet to Rhodes and see that they were taken care of. I was relieved. I said good bye to the five, left them a bunch of food cans with a note to passersby to open them for the cats, and left.


With Lindos as our base, and with the aid of a rental car, we had spent nearly a week exploring the island’s back roads through olive groves, pine forests, and along lonely beaches. At last, however, it was time to return to Rhodes City.

It was there, on our last evening, that we encountered the saddest case of all: a poor, starving, sunken-eyed little cat, barely surviving near the ruins of the Rhodes Acropolis. Situated on a hill overlooking the city, the place is far from the normal food sources for cats. We poured this sad, frail creature a cup of water, from which it drank long and hard. This in itself was not a good sign, but when we poured out a can of wet food he ate only a little and slowly walked away to lie down. Emaciated and skeletal, he was simply too sick to eat.

Although by now I too was frightfully sick with flu, we returned the next day to check on him. Again, he could barely eat. We really did not know what to do. It was Sunday, and nothing was open or reachable by phone - no vets, no animal welfare offices - and our flight home was scheduled for 5:00pm. We had no carrying case, and could not even consider taking him home with us. We walked (I staggered) two miles down the hill to the waterfront, and left a note for the animal welfare people describing his location and condition. Some days later we received an e-mail saying that they had found our feeding station, but not the cat. It’s not clear what we could have done under the circumstances, but whatever it was, we failed to do it. Of all the cats we have encountered over the years, the memory of this one is, for me, the most haunting.

The Rhodes Acropolis, and its lonely, sickly inhabitant.


The only conclusion is that there remains a dire need for systematic spaying. The Rhodes Animal Welfare Society is struggling valiantly in this regard (we saw more clipped ears on Rhodos than on any other Greek island), and for now the best thing a concerned traveler can do may be to help such groups cover the cost of at least one spaying. Europeans with relatively short flights home can also, of course, adopt a stray, as we did on Santorini last year. Still, the scope of the problem remains vast.

The number of feral cats on Rhodos continues to grow.

Amid all the talk of “eco-tourism,” we are convinced there is now a need to work out some system of “compassionate tourism” whereby travelers are not only encouraged to take an active role in addressing the problem (for which tourists, after all, bear some responsibility), but are shown how to do so - how to underwrite a spaying, how to adopt, how to contribute, how to get help for a sick or injured cat - how to do more than stand, as we often have, and feel overwhelmed by the problem.

Visit the website of the The Rhodes Animal Welfare Society:


Wiltraud Engländer is an ethologist, author, and photographer. She is currently writing a book on how simple training can not only make cats better companions, but can also enrich their lives. She lives in Salzburg, Austria, with two cats.

Derek Bousé is currently Visiting Associate Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Eastern Mediterranean University, on the island of Cyprus. He is the author of Wildlife Films (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

Read Derek's "A Greek Tragedy" for more about the plight of feral cats.

Next time: The Cats of North Cyprus

Copyright 2002 Derek Bousé and Wiltraud Engländer

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