The heroic efforts of British couple Joan and Richard Bowell to rescue and take care of all the homeless cats on the Greek island of Syros, by creating a cat sanctuary, are the subject of a riveting documentary out of Netflix called “The Cats of Syros.”
Greek-American Ted Sarandos is Netflix’s Co-CEO and chief content officer, whose family originates from the Greek island of Samos.
Back in 2018, the gigantic sanctuary housing 55 cats, plus their kittens, had come to world attention when the couple asked for a new caretaker to step in and help the felines, which they had been helping for the past twenty years.
Called “God’s Little People,” their idyllic sanctuary, in which the cats roam free in the Greek island sunshine, needed a live-in caretaker after being overseen by many years by the British couple.
After their global plea for just the right person went viral they received more than 70,000 applications for the position, ultimately offering it to Jeffyne Telson from California, who had previously run ResQCats, a feline sanctuary in Santa Barbara, California.
Greece is well-known for populations of stray cats, especially on the islands, where they beg for food and are often fed by local people as well. But when the British couple arrived on Syros twenty years ago on vacation, they were horrified at the treatment of cats they witnessed there.
They saw that the cats there were poisoned, drowned — even sometimes thrown from cliffs or burned or left on trash heaps to die. Sickened by this behavior, the couple decided they must do something about these barbaric practices.
There were at that time approximately 3,000 stray cats on Syros — which has a human population of 25,000.
Richard Bowell said in an interview with The Guardian “We spent our holidays feeding them, rushing them to the vet and giving them medication. Leaving them behind was terrible. We talked about how wonderful it would be to build our own house and help the cats.”
By 2011, the couple had sold their home and moved permanently to Syros, establishing their sanctuary on an acre of land, and within the year they had rescued 30 felines. Joan Bowell recalls “It was overwhelmingly sad how many lived around trash bins scouring the garbage and fighting over scraps. I started feeding a colony by the local dumpsters.”
Of course, word got out quickly amongst the locals and before they knew it, entire litters of newborn kittens were found dumped near the trash bins for Joan and Richard to take care of.
Richard says he remembers a conversation with an island veterinarian some time ago in which the vet asked him why he would want to bury a cat that he was euthanizing. He recalls that he explained “Well, it’s to remind ourselves of our humanity.”
Since Greece at that time was in the midst of the financial crisis, times were especially tough for their nonprofit, and the couple were soon broke after all their valiant efforts to rescue the forgotten felines of Syros.
At one point Joan found herself unable to come up with enough money to even buy a coffee — forcing them to ask the vets they worked with to provide their services for free, until they could be reimbursed.
Soon, the electricity to their property was cut off for nonpayment.
After that nadir of their lives, however, a miraculous thing happened when a €10 note just happened to literally blow onto their property.
It was a harbinger of things to come, as by and by, the economy improved and things began to look up financially for God’s Little People and the couple who had given up all they had ever known to take care of the most vulnerable members of society.
Now, it is rare to see a stray cat on the island of Syros — and that is almost all due to the tireless work and dedication of the Bowells. As Richard says, “While we’re here on earth we’re going to do whatever we can to contribute in a meaningful way to a new, more humane world.”
“We want to show the world that animals count and that the way we treat them reflects something of our own humanity.”
The Netflix special on God’s Little People Sanctuary is scheduled for release in early 2021.
To donate to the Sanctuary, please visit the organization’s Facebook page, here.