Thursday, May 21, 2009

Interview with Madi Collins

It was in late 2007 that the Canadian Animal Assistance Team first heard from Madi Collins, founder of the P.A.W. Cat Sanctuary in Caye Caulker, Belize, in the form of a press release.

“It was 1:30 in the morning. I was searching for funding, number one. I started writing and sending press releases all over to see who would respond,” says Collins. It was her plea for help for the community's animals.

She invited CAAT and its team of veterinarians, technicians and assistants to visit the island to provide clinical and humane education services. For two weeks this March, a team of seventeen volunteers stayed at the P.A.W. Cat Sanctuary, making a difference in the lives of hundreds of animals and residents on the island.

Collins was born and raised on a small waterfront property on the island, a half-hour’s boat ride from Belize City. In all the years spent growing up in Caye Caulker, there were very few dogs. They were not running rampant like they are now. “And you didn’t really see many cats like that – there was more jungle, more trees…the cats had a lot of space, a lot of places to hide.”

As a teenager, she accompanied a high school friend on a visit to the United States. What was meant to be a six-month visit turned into twelve years. She first worked as a nanny in New York City. “When I got there to visit my friend, she was with her boyfriend. And then I started looking around, ‘cause there’s not much for a young girl to do,” she recalls. “My first job – taking care of two girls and an entire household…was a lot of work for one person.”

The experience demanded that she grow up quickly. She worked in childcare for the next five years and tried out part-time modeling for local businesses. But Collins had more in mind for herself – she wanted to attend college. “The people I was involved with were not college-educated people who wanted to go to school. They wanted to remain in that environment – just babysitting, or apartment cleaning, or whatever. I knew I wanted to do more with my life. It was very hard trying to break out of that circle – find out where to go, how to register…there was a lot I had to learn.”

After completing a legal assistant program, she was able to secure her first office job and obtain legal papers to stay in the States. “I would work a nine-to-five job and in the evenings, after my job, I would go to school.” She continued to educate herself, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in political science.

After twelve years living in New York City, she was beginning to question the lifestyle in New York.: "It was all work, work, work. There was no time for yourself, for anything. I couldn’t even have pets in the beginning because I couldn’t take care of them.”

“I always loved animals,” she says. “My dad is an animal lover. My mom respects them – she would not hit them or hurt them or anything, but she was always scared – especially of dogs – because she was bitten as a child. She was never raised to have pets. Animals belong outside, they’re dirty, they’re the devil, too much hair…wouldn’t want them in the house. When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to have cats or dogs for pets.”

Around this time, her father fell ill and she returned to the island. “I came here and I really wasn’t sure if I was going to stay here and live,” remembers Collins. “I figured I would help my parents out, see how things were going.”

A year went by and she was still in Belize. She watched as her savings dwindled and began considering ways to earn an income. She purchased snorkeling equipment during a visit to the States so that she could open a diving shop. There weren’t many diving operations on the island at that time.

“I would get up early in the morning to get my stuff ready for business,” Collins remembers. “One morning I started hearing some kittens crying.” She followed the sound to the end of the dock and spied a bag in the water. “There were a few kittens in there and I just couldn’t believe it!”

In the five years since her return, there have been several instances of cats being washed up on her shore with ropes tied around their necks or legs. “That started opening up my eyes and I thought, something needs to be done.”

A natural researcher, Collins insisted that if she did something, it be done right and by the book. “This has to be registered, legal, so people could take me seriously,” she explained. She had been rescuing animals since her arrival in Belize, but the P.A.W. Cat Sanctuary wasn’t made legal until 2006. “Everything takes time in Belize to get done,” she explained.

At first she housed sixteen cats in her cattery (called the Meow-tel), a storage area which used to house her diving equipment. “As the cats kept coming, I built a tiny little place…I started investing some money. When I could, I put another roof and it started to grow.”

Right now, the sanctuary is home to fifty-two cats, all of which are spayed and neutered. “I learned everything on my own,” says Madi, “through trial and error. When they’re sick, I research it on the computer. We have no vets on the island.”

“When I got here, I wanted to take my cats to the vet. I was new here and didn’t know many people, didn’t know the people at the dive shop had a vet here. It was not regular – it was once a month. I took my cats to the city and the same people said, ‘You know, we’re at Caye Caulker on a monthly basis.’ As my sanctuary started growing and more residents started coming into the sanctuary, it was very difficult to take my cats to the clinic.”

Collins was able to organize a clinic on the island with veterinarian Dr. Orlando Baptiste, and her press releases brought the World Vets to Caye Caulker to assist with surgeries and vaccinations.

“I never went to the people who run this village. I could go there and argue with these people forever. I said, you know what, I’m going to find some vets somewhere that would like to come here and help us out – by providing free services so that these people can see that the animals are important, that I think they are important. All these people that are partaking in this event, they think that animals are important. By that people would start learning,” she said.

Focused and determined, one of her greatest hopes is to change the laws in Belize. Currently, animal owners are meant to register or license their dogs, but it is not a law that is enforced. “I just feel that dogs don’t belong on the street,” explains Collins, "especially because it’s such a small community. Tourists are everywhere. Half these people don’t have the money to vaccinate these dogs! God forbid they end up having rabies and biting someone!”

On her website, she has started a petition. It’s her goal to obtain 1000 signatures in support of changes to the laws. One of her ideas is to register pets by taking a photograph of the animal and its owner. “They would be held accountable,” she said. “I don’t think it’s the government’s position to have to pick up a dog. Of course they’re not going to feed it. They’re going to put strychnine on the streets. They would have to pay a fee to register their dogs and be held accountable for that dog. It’s not a right to have a dog; it’s a privilege!”

She has received little support from the island’s residents. “It’s a small-knit community. There’s only so many people to go around. I was so hopeful that people would want to be a part of [the sanctuary]. I’m not giving up,” says Collins. “Even if I have to fight the government and even if I’m alone, I’m going to die trying to get where I want to get. If I’m not going to get the help here, I’m going to get it somewhere else.”

As Collins began bringing more cats into the sanctuary, she found it more difficult to make ends meet. “I came up with my volunteer vacation program.”

She moved upstairs and began to rent out the two suites on the main floor of the house. “This couple from Vancouver came – Tony and Eve…they said they’d try to help me by putting a little blurb on Trip Advisor. Prior to that, I was struggling, wondering where my money would come to feed – selling everything imaginable,” she explains. “I don’t have a bed! I sold everything. This is how I live. The more I got rid of stuff, the more I felt free.”

Since then, she has had people contact her from all over the world enquiring about the suites.

The waterfront kitchenette, which is equipped with air conditioning, refrigerator, microwave, coffee machine, stove, private bath and a large deck, rents for $80 BZD a night (dependent on the season). The back suite, known as the Garden Room, rents for $50 BZD per night, and there is also accommodation available in a small cabana. “The cabana is $20 BZD per person, like a dorm. If they want to rent it on their own, it’s $25 BZD because it has an outdoor bathroom.” She also offers camping onsite for $10 BZD per person.

A view from the kitchenette suite

Collins emphasizes that if guests come to rent or volunteer at the sanctuary, she would be able to invest more in helping the animals. Several of the cats require special food – to aid with urinary and renal problems. Every other week, she journeys over the Mexican border to Czetomal to purchase Royal Canine Renal S/O Feline food. “You can’t have it delivered. In Belize they have a law that you can only buy animal food here.”

“I’ve had a couple of people send me little cans – maybe twenty-four little cans in a box by mail. It got here. It wasn’t searched. If it’s a huge container, they would confiscate it or take it away from me. Each time I go [to Czetomal], I can only afford to bring back two packages. The water taxi is $25 BZD round trip. The bus is $35 BZD round trip. I have a friend there, but if she’s not around, I have to stay at a hotel, which would cost me at least $40 BZD a night….and the pack of food costs $40 BZD for one bag.”

That means that Madi is spending approximately $140 BZD twice a month traveling to Mexico. That’s money that could have been spent on the animals.

She hopes that more tourists will visit Caye Caulker and her sanctuary and take part in her volunteer vacation program. “I really need a little break…I have been doing this for five years without taking a vacation.”

It is her hope that she can start speaking to people in the streets and fundraise for her animal rescue efforts. She’d also like to gather statistics about the location of cat colonies on the island and document the number of stray animals, so that when she speaks to the government, she will be able to provide them with facts about the population and severity of the problem.

“Figures play a good role,” Collins says. “I could do this until I turn blue. We could vaccinate all of the animals we find, but the situation will get the same way in about a year. We’re just going to continue this and what? There needs to be some kind of a change.”

To learn more about vacation rentals and the volunteer vacation program, or to make a donation, visit Madi's website or contact her by email.

Donations can be made online or may be forwarded to:
c/o Madi Collins
Pasero Street
Caye Caulker Island, Belize
Central America

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