It is no secret that the ruins of Chellah are home to a large population of cats. But who looks after them?
Rabat – On a hot Friday afternoon, a dozen tour buses and vans line the long driveway of Chellah, one of Rabat’s busiest historical sites.
Blue taxis make their way around the cul de sac, dropping off parents with their children before making a hasty departure. Tourists and locals alike swarm the front gate of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, navigating through the electric turnstiles being installed in preparation for Mawazine.
A red carpet has been set on the floor for the music festival, and workers race to cover it with plastic tarps before Chellah’s visitors soil it with their dirty shoes.
Despite the flashy decor and high-tech security measures, Chellah remains frozen in time.
Throughout the stone remains of the Roman city and the old Islamic complex, storks nest atop the exposed pillars and arches of the old Quranic school. A pair have proudly claimed the peak of the tall minaret of the old mosque, while dozens more make their homes in the “stork condos” just past the lower gardens.
In Chellah’s eastern quarter, the white walls of the marabout tombs with their seafoam-green accents shadow le Bassin aux Anguilles–the eel pool. Legend has it that feeding boiled egg whites to the eels will bring fertility and easy childbirth, attracting women who wish to fall pregnant.
In this lush corner of the medieval necropolis, Chellah’s cats find their sanctuary.
Cats can be found all throughout the site, but in the area surrounding the eel pool and the tombs, several dozen are gathered at any given time to eat, drink, and rest.
A quick Google search of “Chellah’s cats” will produce dozens of images and blog posts from travelers who were captivated by these beauties and charmed by the new varieties of life that now occupy these crumbling ancient ruins. While the historical landmark is an attractive enough destination in its own right, animal-loving tourists are undoubtedly thrilled to discover that Chellah is also a paradise for stray cats.
An angel in a tan djellaba
Like the perpetual ruins of Chellah, the calm atmosphere surrounding the basin and the tombs is unchanging. Although the place is packed on this particular summer day, the cats lounging by the tombs appear unbothered.
Five cats are perched on the low wall facing the pool of the sacred eels, legs tucked under their bodies and eyes closed, visibly content. A litter of seven-week old kittens lay on the ground next to the pool. A lone rooster clucks his way past the sleeping kittens and settles in the bushes. Upon first glance, all seems right in the world of Chellah’s cats.
A closer look, however, will reveal that some of the cats are actually dirty, sick, and weak. Some have severe eye infections, others are very thin, and one kitten, visibly soiled, appears to be dead–that is, until you look close enough to notice his haggard breathing.
When I first visited Chellah on a rainy April day last year, the cats seemed healthy and well taken care of. And I, like most tourists, took this for granted.
I remember seeing one kitten with an eye infection, and I watched as a woman in a tan djellaba applied medicine to the kitten’s eye. After finishing with the kitten, the woman brought out dry cat food, called croquettes, and distributed it among two terracotta tajines. A dozen cats, who had been quietly resting nearby, instantly perked up and flooded the feeding area. The woman smiled as she watched over them.
“She’s an angel,” I thought.
The woman in the tan djellaba left an impression on me, and I’m surely not the first to be captivated by her. As an animal lover, I am always happy to see Moroccans looking out for neighborhood strays. Doing so is no easy task, especially given the risks of disease and the high costs of food and medicine for cats and dogs. To see someone taking care of cats full-time was touching, and I wanted to learn more about this generous woman. After arriving in Rabat this June, I had the privilege of meeting her and hearing her story.
A family legacy
Fatima* has been in this corner of Chellah for ten years, entirely of her own accord. She has followed in the footsteps of her late father, who started caring for Chellah’s cats in the 1950’s. After he passed away, Fatima’s mother took his place until she fell ill a decade ago.
Since then, Fatima has been carrying on this benevolent tradition.
Every day, she takes care of the cats, feeds the eels, keeps the area clean, and preserves the integrity of the basin and the tombs.
Contrary to my own assumptions, she is not employed by the site’s administrators, nor does she get paid for any of the work she does. She is there as a volunteer purely out of love for the cats, and doesn’t work anywhere else to make up for her lack of pay. All that she can offer the cats comes from the donation bowl, the few dirhams she can make selling eggs to tourists who are looking to feed the eels, and the two or three dirhams to be made from selling candles sporadically brought to the tombs.
Even though the cats of Chellah are adored by so many tourists, the administrators who benefit the most from their presence are largely uninterested in their wellbeing–and that of their caretaker.
Fatima had been living in the marabout tombs for almost six years, which allowed her to dedicate more attention to the cats and provide them with special care if they got sick. However, she was asked to leave by Chellah’s administration.
“They told me, ‘it’s a historical site, not a living facility,’” she recalls. “The government wouldn’t approve if they found out.”
Whatever it takes
Since moving, her time with the cats is now limited to Chellah’s regular hours of operation, which are usually from 8:30 am to 6:30 pm. Working for ten hours without pay is no easy feat, especially when your work offers a lifeline to creatures that otherwise have to fend for themselves.
However, Fatima does not complain about the lack of compensation for her time, and she has never asked the administration to give her an official position. She is there as a cat-loving volunteer–nothing more, nothing less. She loves what she does, even if it is taken for granted.
Of course, donations are greatly appreciated, but Fatima is not concerned with money.
“I don’t know how much it costs,” she says when asked about her cat-related expenses. “I don’t count. I just do whatever I can to take care of them.”
A brief aside
The donation bowl on the ground has a decent amount of coins. Mostly ones, twos, halves, and quarters. Maybe a couple fives. Just a few feet away, the mossy floor of the eel pool is littered with change. Several ten dirham coins, distinguished by their size and gold details, catch my eye.
I can’t blame visitors for wanting to throw coins into the pool. No matter where you’re from, tossing a coin into some form of water is almost an instinctual urge. Who am I to tell people where they should put their money?
Of course, I’m biased. Personally, I would much rather offer my spare change to the kind woman who feeds the cats that I’m posting on my Instagram.
I know that for my fellow American travelers, ten dirhams is only about a dollar, which seems like a meager addition to a steep food bill. But those ten dirhams can be the difference between feeding the cats croquettes or crumbs.
I must admit, it broke my heart to see those gold-lined coins at the bottom of the pool.
Dozens of mouths to feed
Fatima keeps track of every cat living near the basin and tombs. At present, she takes care of 33 cats on a daily basis, although cats from all over Chellah visit her for food.
“There used to be more than 40 here, but a lot of them died recently,” she sadly admits.
She explains that when the cats get sick, she either can’t afford their medicine or doesn’t know what to do for them. Without access to a veterinarian, she can only offer them basic or substandard treatment.
For almost five years, Fatima’s efforts were abetted by a woman from an animal association in France.
The woman, who was living in Morocco, would bring Fatima cat food, take sick cats to the vet, and help with anything else the cats needed. Additionally, the cats were vaccinated and sterilized by a local association in Rabat. But as the association struggled with its own bills and mounting debt, they had to stop helping Fatima.
As for the French woman, she returned to her home country a few years ago. Since then, Fatima hasn’t been able to provide the same care.
Without any formal assistance, Fatima relies entirely on donations. However, donations will never be enough to maintain the services provided through associations: sterilization and vaccinations cost about 1200 MAD per cat. On top of that, feeding 33 cats basic dry food or a rice-based mixture likely costs around 2000 MAD a month. Medicine for infections and other illnesses is yet another cost to consider.
Even on a busy day, Fatima barely earns enough in donations to feed the cats. When she is short on funds, she has to improvise with food scraps.
During this visit the tajines are peppered with stale chunks of bread.
Not once throughout the 60+ years of her family’s involvement with Chellah have any officials stepped in to improve the cats’ quality of life.
“I have never heard of the government coming to check on the cats,” Fatima says.
Consequently, it is up to generous visitors and animal associations to enable the proper care of these cats.
Over a year ago, a member of a foreign animal association visited Fatima and promised to fund her work. But this promise was empty.
“I never heard from him again,” she says. “He didn’t keep his word. ”
Although Fatima is no stranger to disappointment, not all hope is lost.
Once a month, a local resident brings her a large bag of croquettes and some pate, which is a type of wet food. She receives daily donations from visitors and has friends who stop by on occasion to offer their help.
Perhaps as local associations get their footing, they will be able to resume sterilizing and vaccinating Chellah’s cats.
Looking after these animals, especially without the financial means to fully care for them, is undoubtedly emotionally exhausting. But Fatima doesn’t dwell on what she can’t provide for them; rather, she hopes her efforts will inspire others to treat their neighborhood strays with the same kindness they see at Chellah.
The future of animal welfare
Although there have been calls to develop the kingdom’s position on animal rights, Fatima is not optimistic about the future of animal welfare in Morocco.
In order to reduce the stray population and end the widespread suffering of unwanted animals, reforms are needed locally and nationwide.
However, in a country that also needs better schools, hospitals, and infrastructure, stray cats and dogs don’t place very high on the official list of priorities.
Fortunately, there are people like Fatima all over Morocco.
Moroccans in every city are caring for strays. Whether this be putting out food and water for cats, assembling makeshift shelters for dogs, or donating time and money to local animal associations, the social aspect of animal welfare is progressing every day. But until a large-scale government effort is made to improve the living conditions faced by animals in the streets, the cats and dogs inhabiting Morocco’s bustling medinas and quiet villages will have to rely on friendly neighbors to survive.
If you would like to learn more about the fight for animal rights in Morocco, check out some of these organizations: