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Beyond the litter box….

How a Loulé pet shelter is transforming the landscape of animal welfare

ARA (the acronym for Animal Rescue Algarve) is already legendary for the way in which it has rewritten the guide on how to run a successful shelter. With a formula for ‘turnover’ of almost 200% (meaning roughly 30 cats and dogs are rehomed per month), everything has been engineered to ensure that every animal arriving has the best possible life thereafter. But that hasn’t been enough for founder Sid Richardson – a ‘numbers man’ who came into animal welfare after a career in big business, and has taken to the task with a sense of determination very few will ever be able to understand.

Sid’s latest focus has been on feral cats – thousands of which are roaming Loulé, the vast majority not sterilized, without shelter, care or regular food.

For all the will and efforts of animal associations running ‘catch, sterilize and release’ efforts, there is never the time or the money to make any meaningful difference. 

Associations do incredible work, but they cannot sterilize every feral cat in every feral colony, and, as Sid explains, “if you only half solve the problem, you don’t solve the problem at all: you still have growth”.

The number of feral cats in the borough is indeed growing by the year – translating into ever increasing demands on the insufficient resources of animal shelters.

Feral cats are often not even ‘well’; with viruses and disease spreading as exponentially as they are, the situation has clearly been weighing on Sid’s sense of order.

“All it needed was some organisation”, he tells us. (This is a man who was mystified when he began his professional life over what he called the “poor ability” of his peers. He doesn’t think he is the one with all the answers, just that other people for some reason don’t think enough.)

The upshot of this ‘different viewpoint’ is that Sid has cracked it for Loulé’s feral cats: he has come up with a project, signed off by Loulé town council, that should steadily reduce the number of reproducing cats, to the point that numbers will be halved in five years time, and for all intents and purposes ‘sorted’ in 10.

Dubbed MEGA community cat project, it has already started – and by MEGA community, it really does mean that: even prisoners are involved.

Just as he hopes ARA’s philosophy and approach could become a blueprint for shelters up and down the country, Sid’s ambition for MEGA community cat project is that it could inspire other animal protectors in other boroughs to set up similar initiatives.

So how does it work?

“The town hall and local parishes are key. You have to get them on board”, he tells us. “They generally have the funds, but lack the ‘will’ to do these kinds of things themselves; animal shelters have the will but lack the funds. It’s just a question of bringing them all together…

“Loulé town hall has given us at least half the money we need to start; the parishes are on their way to giving a bit more – and we have committed to physically carrying out the ‘capture, sterilize and release’ programmes; siting at least 40 feral cat ‘shelters’ per year within the borough (up to a total of 400); creating a network of carers and volunteers (to make sure the shelters are maintained, cleaned and stocked with water and food) and promoting awareness and fund-raising campaigns through the local schools”.

Sid has drawn up a press release with various bullet-points, managing to make it look somehow effortless. But it wasn’t: he admits to having worked tirelessly on this project “for months”.

He has managed to get the Golden Triangle’s property management companies onboard (Inframoura, Infraquinta and Infralobo), all of them agreeing to enter a protocol to supply and deliver material needed to create the necessary 40 feral cat shelters per year – and on the other side of the tracks entirely, he has charmed Silves Prison authorities into embracing the project and agreeing to get inmates to build the shelters (they too have already started… see image below)

These shelters are ‘the best solution’ for feral cats which cannot easily be ‘rehomed’ in any kind of domestic setting. The models for the project will have sleeping areas for between 5-10 cats each: the idea being that they “can live with dignity” once they have been returned to their former colonies neutered.

And then of course there are the vets that have been persuaded onboard, to actually perform the sterilisations.

Pivotal also in the plan is the educational side of ARA: Sid’s Portuguese is far from workable, but he has a much younger team behind him – and to a large extent inspiring him – that makes up for linguistic failings.  It is this team, headed by ‘ARA ambassador João Ferreira’ (perhaps the coolest young man to take animal welfare into schools) that ensures Loulé’s upcoming generations become, and stay, enchanted, and thus draw parents and grandparents into the whole magic of what being kind to animals creates.

Another ongoing project, for example, is focused on trying to dissuade people from keeping dogs on chains: local schools (Agrupamento de Escolas de Almancil and Escola Secundária de Loulé) are heavily invested in the message and an exhibition of their work is due shortly at MAR Shopping.

But the ‘big reach’ of 2023 is definitely this MEGA community cat initiative. It will involve ten of thousands of euros, every year, but it has at least been ‘agreed’ and serious money committed by local authorities.

“The way I see it, I don’t just want to be associated with an elitist kennels in Loulé”, Sid says simply. “What kind of legacy is that? I am so aware of bad practices and poor animal welfare. I just want to be able to make a difference. It’s all about will in the end…”

Will, steely determination… and a touch of magic.

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