Whether moving across town or across the country, moving day is dreaded by many. Moving 200 shelter cats and a handful of dogs across Narva in 30-degree heat? Surely a feat like that would take an army. On Thursday, the many volunteers of the nonprofit Narva Kassituba MTÜ (Narva Cat Room) got an extra hand from just that — six members of the British Army currently serving in NATO Battlegroup Estonia.
It's easy to miss the location of the cat shelter if you don't know where to look for it — a brown door around the side of a nondescript, unrenovated Soviet-era apartment building on Energia Street that doesn't even bear a sign, only a phone number and the hours 14:00-16:00 scratched into the paint by hand. And yet people still know where to come, and around this time of year, cats and litters of kittens are unceremoniously dumped by the door almost daily.
This is the site of Narva Cat Room, the home of some 200 cats and kittens, give or take a litter. Or rather, it was until this Thursday.
In the midst of a heatwave, all 200 cats, plus three dogs and a puppy, were being relocated from their current space on the basement level of the apartment building to a new space quite literally on the other side of the tracks — the former home of Narva Art School, now owned by the City of Narva, located in a greener part of the neighborhood of Kreenholmi.
The nonprofit had already organized the help of a small army of volunteers that had a large white moving van at its disposal, which was used to shuttle appliances, furniture, boxes and boxes of supplies, towers of food bowls, crates, and, of course, the cats themselves.
When British members of NATO Battlegroup Estonia, already in Narva for the week, heard that they could use some extra muscle, they were more than happy to step up to the challenge.
'We are all animal lovers'
Just a few weeks out of Spring Storm, the six British troops, currently based in Tapa, admitted that literally herding cats was not a typical mission for them, but they had just wrapped up a week of civic outreach efforts that has seen them visit children at the pediatric ward at Narva Hospital, participate in the Heroes Obstacle Race Narva, take part in activities with the Home Daughters (Kodutütred) and Young Eagles (Noored Kotkad), the youth arms of the volunteer Estonian Defence League (Kaitseliit), as well as simply spend time around town, chatting with locals.
The group turned up at the shelter's old location on Energia Street just past 11 a.m. on Thursday, when temperatures were already soaring and the sun was beating down, with no clouds of relief in sight. They were given an overview of what needed to be done, and two members were immediately sent to the new location across town, to help receive the cats and supplies as each vanful was transported there. The rest got to work on site.
"We took the opportunity offered by Narva City Days to learn more about Estonian culture and experience different parts of the country," Philip, a British Army sergeant serving in NATO Battlegroup Estonia, told ERR News.
"We are all animal lovers, so when we heard the animal shelter needed volunteers, we were delighted to help," he said.
From 20 to 200
Transporting cats may not sound like the most difficult job, but there was plenty of work to go around. The dedicated kitten room alone had its share of juveniles running around loose, still too small to be released into the general population that had the run of the remaining rooms, but several stacked crates also held mothers with litters of tiny, squirming cats, some with their eyes barely open. One such mother had just gotten a new addition to her litter the day before — a single foster kitten who was dropped off by a young man the day before under less than transparent circumstances.
Stories like this are common here, and part of the reason why one nonprofit is caring for so many cats — and needed more room.
Julia Tuštšenko, the woman who founded the nonprofit, said that the Cat Room started out in 2016 with just 20 cats in one of the several rooms the shelter had come to occupy in the three years since. The shelter really only serves Narva and the nearby Narva-Jõesuu, but there is no shortage of stray cats in this city alone.
"Every day, every other day," she said when asked how often they end up with more cats in their care. Spring always heralds a kitten boom too, and then they are brought to the shelter by the litter.
And how often do cats from the shelter get adopted out? "One or two adults per month, maybe." Kittens tend to get adopted more quickly. Fewer are interested in adopting adult cats, some of which have waited for years for their turn to go home.
One tactic used to manage feral cat populations in some countries is TNR, or trap, neuter (or spay) and release, but according to Tuštšenko, local legislation would not even allow for such a program here, as once a cat has been caught, they may not be released into the wild again. In effect, this means that the only way to try to gain control over the exploding local feline population is to convince people to spay or neuter their pets, many of whom live or have access to the outdoors.
Even this, however, can be tricky, and it is not always a matter of money or, rather, the lack thereof.
Tuštšenko described one such case from earlier this week. She had received a call from a woman who asked if she could bring the shelter a litter of newborn kittens.
As it turned out, the woman had five cats, none of whom were spayed or neutered, and so Tuštšenko offered that the shelter would accept her kittens on one condition — that she get her cats fixed. The shelter, she offered, would even pay for the procedures. The woman agreed, and the shelter booked appointments at the vet for her four other cats initially — two on one day, and two the next.
After not turning up to the first appointments, the woman called back and said she had changed her mind, and did not want her cats to be fixed after all. As it turned out, she had also given Tuštšenko a fake address.
City funding, donations
While Narva Cat Room receives funding from the city budget, the total of which was increased for 2019, the amount still isn't even enough to cover the cost of the €50 in dry food they go through each day, the shelter director stressed, speak nothing of cat litter, medical supplies, cleaning supplies and vet bills. Thus, the shelter also relies on donations of both supplies and money to get by.
It also cooperates with other shelters in its efforts to adopt out its cats. According to Tuštšenko, some cats are selected to be sent to Tallinn, where they are more likely to find a home through one of its partners.
"People pay up to €40 in adoption fees in Tallinn," she said. "Even taking the cost of traveling to Narva into account, it would be cheaper to come here to find a new family member. And we have already paid for vaccines, deworming and microchipping — all the expensive parts of getting a new cat."
The British troops that helped relocate the Cat Room on Thursday expressed hope that their involvement would help bring attention to Narva Cat Room's efforts and maybe even lead to some adoptions. Tuštšenko hoped for the same.
New space, better conditions
In the meantime, the new location on Turu Street will at least provide better conditions both for the resident animals as well as the volunteers caring for them.
While city funds helped pay for some renovations at the previous location, the new space, which includes the entire second floor of the building, includes several times more space, more rooms — which means being able to more comfortably quarantine new incoming animals as well as those with illnesses or who otherwise need a special diet or medication — and, with plenty of big windows, much more sunlight and fresh air. Plumbers were already on site on Thursday to ensure that more rooms had direct access to running water as well.
For more info about Narva Cat Room, the cats — and dogs — waiting to be adopted, and how you can help, check out their Facebook page here.
Read more about NATO Battlegroup Estonia and their activities both in and out of uniform on their Facebook page here.
Editor: Andrew Whyte