I could tell you that I chose this topic because it fits in nicely with the time of year. You know, with the yuletide season and the new year inviting us to pause and self reflect, and perhaps practice a little more kindness, a story about selfless devotion seems just the thing.
Let's be honest here though - I just want to talk cats. Oh alright, and I'm feeling not a little sentimental. Possibly a lingering side effect of the Christmas sugar overdose.
So be forewarned. If the mere thought of our feline friends makes you sneeze and wheeze, or even shudder in horror and disgust, look away now, this is not your kind of tale. Although I dare say that the human kindness bit may still appeal to you, cat lover or not. Some would disagree and claim that no cat hater could ever be a charitable person. I would of course never venture as far as to say that. Did you know that Adolf H. hated cats by the way?
The story I want to share began in
1966. A lady called Henriëtte van Weelde was living in a house by one of ’s many canals, when one fateful day she spotted a mama cat and her kittens shivering in the cold, trying to find shelter under a tree. Many would have looked the other way, but not Henriëtte. Mother and litter were soon bundled up and transported to the warmth and safety of her home. A happy outcome for this furry family. But the tale doesn’t end there. Soon another stray found a home with Henriëtte. And another. And another. Amsterdam
It wasn’t long before Henriëtte became known as 'that cat lady’. People started bringing her strays and cats they couldn’t look after anymore. Henriëtte took them all in. She had a large house as well as a large heart, but when even her patio and her roof top terrace started filling up with felines, she realised something had to be done. And as she, like most Dutch, was made of practical stuff, she came up with a practical (if somewhat novel) solution.
What is Amsterdam most famous for? No not that. Stay focussed. Please. That whole Sodom and Gomorra idea is so last century and no, we're not all doped up to the eyebrows. I meant of course its multitude of canals. So if you were in Amsterdam and in need of expanding your space, where best to do it than on the water? If people can live on house boats then surely so can cats. As long as they keep their socks dry. Having come to this brilliant conclusion, Henriëtte bought a barge and had it converted into a feline-friendly abode. And with the Dutch love of nicknames, within no time the locals had dubbed it the 'Poezenboot': the Pussycat Boat. Yes, there's always the odd tourist who mistakes it for something else.
As you can imagine, that's when things really took off. Cats came from everywhere (and thankfully so did the volunteers). The Poezenboot became a proper Amsterdam institution. Many, many cats have over the years enjoyed room and board in this floating cat sanctuary. They were either found loving new homes or, if that wasn't possible, allowed to live out their lives in safety and comfort - with a nice canal view as an added treat.
Sadly, that one lady it all started with is no longer with us. Henriëtte van Weelde passed away at the age of 90 in 2005, to the end surrounded by loving cats. And I am sure she enjoyed jubilant greetings from a furry welcome committee as she passed through the pearly gates. For after all: 'heaven can not ever heaven be, if my cats aren't there to welcome me'.
You'll be happy to hear that the Cat Boat is still going strong. A legion of dedicated people is making sure that things (literally) stay afloat and that cats continue to find love and shelter on board. They even have a website and a magazine to keep people updated on the antics of their feline boat dwellers, and to share heart-warming stories of cats who have been lovingly adopted.
Some of the kitties will remain on the boat however. They have been either too traumatized by people's treatment of them or have just never been domesticated. They won't ever grow to be 'people cats', but the Cat Boat people love them all the same and continue to offer them a safe haven and a nautical playground. And did you know you can financially sponsor these little ship's mates? That's what I decided to do over Christmas. Don't my sultry Kairo and my sturdy Houdini look gorgeous? Yes, I know. They don't really have that 'come hither' look on their faces. And a good thing too as coming too close would not be the best of ideas. Definitely not people cats.
I want to share one last tale with you. Just one of the many stories in which the Cat Boat made a real difference. A heads up - it's going to get shamelessly sentimental from here on.
One day, at the end of October 2010, the Cat Boat got a call. An emotional young woman had a sad story to tell. One of her friends, still a young man, had died unexpectedly leaving behind 16-year-old Moby, his trusted companion that he had raised since a kitten. To add to the tragedy of the young man's death, the girl had not been able to find a new home for his beloved cat. So Moby arrived at the Cat Boat shortly after. It was poignantly clear that he had been deeply affected by his loss. He was described as a listless cat with the saddest eyes in the world. And even though he was treated with special affection and tender loving care, you could tell that to Moby life just wasn't the same without his special person (anyone saying he was probably just missing his home is an ailurophobe).
Two months passed and Moby had still not found a new home. Then, just after the New Year, a young man came to visit the boat to have a look at its occupants. He still wasn't sure whether he really wanted a cat. And if he was going to take one, it would have to be a kitten. A staff member showed him around the boat and noticed something remarkable. As they passed Moby, who was locked in his own compartment at the time, she saw the cat stir at their sight and hurry out of his sleeping basket to position himself by the bars. And when they walked by the compartment again, a soft little paw was stuck out to get the young man's attention.
Well. There probably weren't any violins playing (cats haven't forgotten what the strings used to be made of*), but all the same it was love at first sight for both of them. Then the young man was told the story of Moby's devastating loss. You can guess what happened next. It was decided there and then: Moby had found himself a new companion.
I'm such a sucker for happy endings.
All images shamelessly 'borrowed' from the poezenboot website. I did the wonky frames though.
*I was relieved to hear this is apparently a myth