THE CATS OF HAMMAMET
Everywhere I looked there were cats: slinking past doorways, lurking by the harbour or dozing on whitewashed walls. According to one travel book, cats are common in Tunisia because dogs are unpopular. During my holiday I saw very few dogs. The hotel itself was just outside Hammamet town, on the northern (Mediterranean) coast of Tunisia.
On the very first evening, a thin, sneezy tabby appeared at our table on the terrace. I parted with some grilled fish. As if by magic, a quartet of snuffly five-week olds emerged from the shrubbery. All were gummy-eyed, but the fourth also had a blocked nose and remained crouched on the warm concrete while his siblings argued over titbits. Sure enough, 'Mum' had located the sucker of the latest batch of tourists and was illustrating her plight.
I nicknamed the kittens 'Little-black' (the only female kitten), 'Little-ginge', 'Big-ginge' and 'Black-and-white'. Their nest was among shrubs in a hotel flowerbed with an excellent view of the terrace. Black-and-white was much smaller than the others and had not progressed onto solids. Mum was obviously having a hard time feeding the family and would not allow the kittens to suckle for more than a minute or two so it looked as if tiny Black-and-white, always trodden under-paw by the other three, was going to be a loser.
Mum and the kittens were all very friendly - and they'd picked on me - so what could I do, but feed them and clean up eyes and noses? I had already spent part of summer nursing flu-ridden kittens for a local animal shelter in England so it was, perhaps, natural that my holiday should be spent nursing snuffly kittens in Tunisia. My husband sighed, picked up his beach things and left me to it.
I was not the only 'silly English' nursing the little family. A fellow cat-rescuer from Derby, England, had also been 'picked on' so we combined out efforts while the menfolk went swimming. We both lamented the fact that we had feline medical supplies a-plenty at home, while in Hammamet the very idea of treating sick cats was treated with scorn. One evening, Black-and-white looked so dreadful that we resorted to dribbling milk into his mouth using the corner of a handkerchief. Cat's-milk replacer was unheard of in Hammamet and despite the unsuitability of cow's milk for kittens, Black-and-white perked up. He was a determined little devil.
When the bemused hotel manager saw us bathing the kittens' eyes, he told us "You can have cat for free - no money," - the only free thing the hotel ever offered its guests. I never saw the staff be deliberately cruel, but more than once they indifferently toed away a hopeful feline. They were amused by the 'silly English' attitude to cats which were of no more import to them than the sparrows and lizards in the hotel grounds, although once or twice notice Mum sauntering out of the hotel gift shop, tail held high. Maybe local attitudes towards animals are slowly beginning to change.
There were other cats in the grounds, including a pair of 12 week olds, a big black and white tom, a young tabby and an elusive tortie who slunk through the shrubbery. Only 'Mum' did not run away when approached. She had a lovely soft purr when stroked and liked to sit companionably with people.
The kittens soon attracted children who were missing family pets. Food-smuggling became a favourite holiday game much to the chagrin of the Children's Games Organiser who found that Crazy Golf could not compete with crazy kittens. With all this extra food, Mum became the epitome of contented motherhood as she nursed her kittens before a hushed audience of children. Black-and-white began putting on weight and rough-and-tumbling with the others although he was still snuffly.
The children also came to watch the kitten cleaning sessions. Most wanted to hold the kittens and did so very gently while Mum watched unconcerned. While the three bigger kittens were being cuddled, Black-and-white had a chance to feed. Mum was not in the least bothered when we handled her babies, even when they protested loudly about having their eyes bathed. She quickly decided that I was a suitable nursemaid and would present me with a kitten, nudging it towards me as if to say, "Look, I've had a bit of a go, now it's your turn."
Despite the unwelcome attention of soggy cotton wool, Black-and-white decided that I was a warm, safe place to sleep out of the way of the more boisterous kittens. He often approached me for cuddles and snuggled down in my lap purring happily. I was going to miss this little fellow when I left. He really was the character of the litter, He had already lost his kittenishness and while the others tumbled in the undergrowth, he preferred to set about the serious business of grooming. He bore a strong resemblance to the black and white tom who lived under the nearby by hibiscus and the two often nose-bumped on meeting. For some reason, 'Dad' tolerated this miniature version of himself, but not the other kittens. While Mum liked to be stroked, Dad was far more wary of humans and his odour did nothing to endear him to the hotel staff who tolerated Mum's occasional presence in the foyer.
When I left, the kittens still had gummy eyes and sneezes, but were much livelier, especially Black-and-white. Eye-bathing duties were taken over by my fellow cat-rescuer who was there for another week. How did Mum know who to pick on to help her kittens or was it just the fact that I was eating fish on that first night that brought her to me?
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