Ilha Furtada in the municipality of Mangaratiba, which belongs to the Costa Verde region in Rio de Janeiro, is located no more than 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the mainland.
In the middle of the tourist itinerary of the Bay of Angra dos Reis, a paradise of green waters, this piece of land also attracts people, but in this case, the attraction is much more related to the mystery than to natural beauty.
According to regional historians, a family tried to settle on the island in the late 1940s. But logistical problems caused them to leave shortly afterward. Without being able to adapt, they returned to the continent to live in Rio. But the cats they carried with them stayed, trapped in the middle of the sea, having nowhere to go.
Over the years, what was originally a small family of cats began to multiply at full speed. But what caught the attention of those who periodically passed the island was the behavior and size of the cats -- much wilder and larger than those usually know as docile pets.
In 2012, the cat population on Ilha Furtada was estimated at 250. Nine years later, the Undersecretary of Animal Protection and Welfare of the State of Rio de Janeiro (Supan RJ) estimated that 750 cats reside on the island.
It is an approximate number, as the characteristics of the place and the animals make it impossible to have an exact count. The area, which is now known as “Island of the Cats” is little more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) in circumference. It does not have a beach, only rocks and a lush jungle.
But what at first glance seems to be a curious, and even sympathetic story, is part of a nightmare for Supan, the environmental organizations of the region, the municipality and the state government.
The Island of the Cats became a dangerous point for the disposal of animals. In times of the coronavirus pandemic, to reduce expenses because of lost space in homes or sheer cruelty, people are traveling to Ilha Furtada to leave their pets.
The integration of the docile animals is usually traumatic since they meet wild cats, food is scarce and there is almost no water suitable for drinking. “Although it may seem difficult to understand, on that island there is no water, there is not enough food and almost no human gets too close, out of fear. Those of us are trying to get to know very well about all these difficulties and the evils that are being seen there, especially in times of the pandemic,” said veterinarian Joyce Puchalski, who coordinates Animal Heart, a group of volunteers working on the island.
At strategic points on the ground, Puchalski and other animal protectors improvised shelters and feeders. They also left containers to catch rainwater, the only one that cats can drink. During their last visits, they set up little houses so the cats can take shelter during the cold, humid and windy winter nights in the Bay of Angra dos Reis.
“The Island of the Cats became a problem for the municipality,” said Secretary of Health of Mangaratiba Sandra Castelo Branco, who has already visited a few times. “The disproportionate growth of the cat population there is very worrying. We have implemented castration campaigns, but these animals are not easy to capture and, above all, we do not have the collaboration of people, who continue to leave their pets there, which makes any type of control difficult for us.”
“Despite the local stories, no one knows for sure how this all started. The truth is that, clearly, the cats were brought there. Above all, because we know very well that cats do not like water, much less swimming,” she said.
“Whoever passes by and sees so many cats together is undoubtedly encouraged to leave their own if they no longer want them at home. It is possible and very simple to prove that new cats are arriving on the island, by means of a study of alteration of the color patterns and by the new genetics of the newborns,” said Amelia Oliveira, founder of Veterinario en la Carretera, an animal protection association that has been monitoring the situation on Ilha Furtada for almost five years.
“As if the speed of reproduction of the cats was not enough, which go into heat four times a year, the residents of the region continue to discard their pets here, ignoring dozens of campaigns that different NGOs and the municipality itself are launching, asking them not to do that, precisely. It gives me a lot of anger,” said Oliveira, who confesses that she meets a new “sad surprise” every time she travels to the Island of the Cats.
One of the main problems of overpopulation is the imbalance it causes to the local fauna. Different species of rodents (cutias, capybaras, bales), lizards and migratory birds often share space with the felines. The main drawback is that cats often eat the eggs and young birds. For their part, lizards eat smaller cats. “It is a mismatch for the food chain, it is not something common in nature or within the island's ecosystem. Above all, because we know that the cats should never have been there,” said Viviane Costa, a Supan veterinarian.
The Island of the Cats seems to be a clear example of a common image throughout the state of Rio de Janeiro, especially in times of the pandemic. “Don't dispose of your animals as garbage! Across the state, about 3,000,000 pets are abandoned. During the pandemic, that number increased by 40%,” Karla de Lucas, director of Supan, points out on social networks. "People forget that, like us, animals get cold, hungry and afraid.”
Periodically, expeditions of veterinarians belonging to NGOs or the state take place on the island to take cats to the mainland for castration and vaccination. According to professionals, they are difficult to capture because of their wild spirit. When noticing the presence of humans, they usually run and hide in the middle of the small jungle in the center of the terrain. When they feel cornered, they can also attack to defend themselves.
Fishermen and tour guides from Mangaratiba try to avoid the island, mainly because of the fear of animals and also because of stories of hexes that occur. “Many times, they ask us why we return them to the island when they are already vaccinated and neutered. And the truth is that adults are already too wild to adapt to a home or to live in the city,” said Andreia Mendes, founder of Resgatinhos, an NGO that tries to remove the smallest cats from Isla Furtado to give them up for adoption in Mangaratiba. “We focus on kittens, those who have a short time living there. Adults are often dangerous.”
The Island of the Cats, which decades ago was for sale for more than $10 million is not the only one inhabited by felines.
It is very common to see cats on islands along the vast Brazilian coast. However, it is the only one exclusively inhabited by this type of animal, since in general, they are usually accompanied by human beings, who are in charge of feeding and caring for them.