Cat rescue can sometimes be life changing. Literally. 34-year-old Lauren Braithwaite was hit by the cat love bug while spending a year in a foreign country. Her newfound passion for felines has kept her there for three additional years and beyond. Having saved the lives of hundreds of feral and stray cats in Saudi Arabia, Lauren now refuses to leave the country without her feline charges. We recently talked to Lauren, who was happy to share her special story with other cat lovers.
Originally from New Zealand, Lauren is a registered nurse who moved to Saudi Arabia in January 2014. She was looking for new experiences, challenging herself to live in a completely different place. Her plan was to stay for one year and work as a nurse in a cardiac hospital in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
Helping Cats in Saudi Arabia
"The situation with cats in Saudi is very bad," Lauren told us. "You can not go down a single street without seeing stray cats around. There are no animal shelters, and the government is not interested in solving the situation."
The Saudi authorities do not believe in TNR programs. They deal with the plight of stray dogs and cats in horrific ways: shooting and mass poisoning of dogs; trapping cats and killing them in inhumane ways. Pet dogs and cats are bred and sold in pet shops where they are kept in appalling conditions.
Unable to ignore the suffering, Lauren soon found herself involved in pet rescue. "My fiancé and I went behind one pet shop we had heard about and rescued 3 cats," she told us about one memorable case. "They were living in an old electrical room, amid cat corpses. One of the cats had a collar stuck around his neck and front leg and was terrified and in pain, but I am happy to say he was rehabilitated and is now in foster care."
Taking in Alley Cats
As is the case with many rescuers, especially working in such dire conditions, the cats soon started making their way not only into Lauren's heart, but into her home as well.
"When I first arrived I lived in a small compound and there were a few wild strays around so I just started feeding them, as to me this is the right thing to do," she shares. "One day a heavily pregnant cat turned up. As it was over 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), I took pity on her and brought her inside. She ended up giving birth to 5 beautiful babies in my bedroom cupboard. Soon after another cat gave birth to 3 boys."
At that point, Lauren told us, she began to realise that this was soon going to become a huge problem. She contacted Open Paws - a local cat charity run by New Zealand native Dr. Lana Dunn. Together, the two women trapped and neutered all the cats in the compound. "It was so good to know that I wouldn’t have to deal with any more unwanted babies," says Lauren.
As is often the case with feral cats, the neutered cats stayed around and
Lauren soon became the caregiver for a colony of more than 30 cats, many of them friendly. It has been stressful, and she has dealt with illness and death but says she wouldn’t change it for the world. "I had nothing to do with cats before coming to Saudi and I am so happy to now say that I love them so much," she says. "I can understand them and I am protective of them, as so many people here just want them gone."
Leaving Saudi Arabia? Not Without her Cats!
Lauren's original plan had been to spend one year in the Middle East. What she hadn't taken into account was falling in love with cats. She is now committed to the wellbeing of the cats and will not leave them behind to fend for themselves in the harsh environment. Entering her fourth year in Saudi Arabia, Lauren still works in the hospital while trying to arrange for all her cats to be transported out of the country with her.
We asked Lauren why wouldn't she find local homes for the cats. Surely that would save money and effort. "I have been unable to find homes locally for any of my cats here," she answered. "There are just too many people trying to find homes for cats and not enough good people wanting them. Many expats leave their cats behind, and local people dump them on the street when they have had enough."
Lauren is going back to Australia where she'd been living for a decade prior to coming to Saudi Arabia. She can't bring all of the cats with her to Australia though. With strict quarantine regulations importing cats into the land down under is a long and very expensive process. Lauren decided to do that with only seven of her cats who will come and live with her on the Gold Coast in Australia.
What about the other cats? Fortunately, a Canadian cat welfare organization came to the rescue! They agreed to take in the rest of the cats, keep them in a shelter and gradually find homes for them. The process of exporting pets to Canada is shorter and less complicated. The cats don't need to be quarantined and will only have to endure the flights. "I do believe it is traumatic for them," Lauren says. "I really have no choice though. I just wish I could tell them that I am doing everything I can to make sure they can have a happy life," she added.
We asked Lauren how she decided on which cats would be going to Canada and which she'd be keeping with her in Australia. She told us the decision had not been an easy one. She chose to take the cats that were most attached to her, including one-eyed Patches and other cats who have been through emotional ordeals and she felt would benefit from staying with her.
Patches will be going to Australia to live with Lauren
What the future might hold
Lauren is hoping to be able to leave Saudi Arabia in the future - but only after sending all of her cats out of the country first. In order to do that, she needs more funds.
Exporting the cats out to safety - particularly to Australia - is time consuming and very expensive. Lauren has started a GoFundMe project asking people for donations. "It literally is taking every cent I have to save these cats. It would really help me out a lot to get donations, even small ones from people, as it all adds up," she said.
Lauren dreams of finding suitable land in Australia where her fiancé and she will be able to build a boarding Cattery and run their own business. They will also have a home for cats in need as well as farm animals. Until that happens, she is going to continue working as a nurse to pay the bills!
"Now that I am passionate about cats I want to look into joining the fight against the apparent new law of culling cats in Australia," Lauren said. "It's not the solution and it's downright cruel."
Rescuing cats has truly changed Lauren's life. The cats that have entered her life in Saudi Arabia have turned her not only into an avid cat lover but also into an activist who plans on continuing the fight for the benefit of animals - and cats specifically - in her homeland.
Would you like to help Lauren get all of her cats safely out of Saudi Arabia? Click here to visit her GoFundMe page. Even if you can't make a donation right now, please make sure to share this page with your friends.