Richard and Joan Bowell, who left everything they had ever known, put a hold on their careers and sold their home in Denmark in order to establish a cat sanctuary on the Greek island of Syros, see their mission as a calling to help heal the world, one feline at a time.
The name of the sanctuary, “God’s Little People,” emanates from the Bowells’ desire to show that animals are an important part of creation and that how we treat them not only has worth in itself but shows the measure of our civilization as a society.
Going to Greece originally on a trip that mixed work with pleasure, the Bowells attended a seminar in the same house where they live now. They later bought the property, thinking that it might one day become a center where writers such as Richard would gather.
Asked by Greek Reporter in an exclusive interview about their first impressions of the conditions cats were living in at that time on Syros, Richard says “When we moved here, we were aware there was a problem, but we didn’t immediately see the depth of it. There are fifteen thousand cats on the island, they estimate, and there are thousands that haven’t been neutered.
“There are many people on the island that are trying to do something and I would say the improvement in the lives of the cats has been enormous,” he stated. “We’re hoping through these stories to further raise the consciousness about these animals.”
However, he took pains to point out that “we don’t want the Greek people to think we’re criticizing them. The younger Greeks are really trying to do something. There’s a lot of effort here now, it’s becoming more unified,” he says.
“Just yesterday we picked up another cat, and he couldn’t walk. We never refuse them. It’s downstairs… it’s endless, it goes on forever,” he states. “And it’s very expensive,” he adds.
A well-known phrase goes something like “The greatness of a nation can be judged by how it treats its weakest member.” This is clearly reflected in the work of the Bowells and the many people who have volunteered and worked at the Sanctuary over the years.
“By the way we treat them, that’s how we measure our evolution”
The phrase “God’s Little People” doesn’t have a religious connotation, according to Bowell. “It means that cats and animals and the natural world are God’s little people, and how we treat them is how they know about God, how they know about a higher consciousness,” he explains.
“Joan, my wife, is always saying that she wants animals to know about God as being kind and considerate and compassionate. By the way we treat them, that’s how we measure our evolution. And that applies to everyone worldwide.”
Greece is well known for its populations of both stray cats and dogs, especially on its many islands. Regarding the special circumstances for animal welfare on the Greek islands, Bowell explains that the issue has to do with the fact that some of them are no longer traditional islands with year-round residents.
Instead, they have a majority of seasonal residents who feed feral cats during the summer months — and then leave them with no one at all to take care of them during the winters.
Syros, where Richard and Joan have established their sanctuary, is one of the Greek islands that is fortunately inhabited year-round, but it still has a problem with summer residents who feed strays all summer but depart in September for their winter homes — leaving the cats high and dry.
“We’re always in the car with loads of kibble and cans of food because they come out, ‘saying How can I eat? How can I survive?'” Richard relates. After they first came onto the rescue scene, and the Sanctuary was just founded, “people would look at the cats left wandering the villages in the Autumn and think they’d never survive the winter,” he remembers.
But then the cats remained healthy and even flourished, he said — as a result of their care.
And the Bowells did more than feed them. They took them for all the veterinary care they needed to keep them healthy — an expensive undertaking, one that even now makes up one-third of their expenditures on the felines every year, according to Richard.
“You’re treating them as little people”
Gilbert, a blind cat that he and Joan had recently found on the hillside, is a good example of the amount of work that must be done on the cats in their care. Richard explained that Gilbert had been unable to eat due to dental problems and he was suffering. “So when you’re taking them in,” he says, “you’re not just feeding them good food, you’re treating them as little people.”
“We are at the vet’s usually four days out of five,” he admits resignedly, however. Last year, out of the $35,000 spent on the cats, he estimates that $15,000 was spent on veterinary services alone.
“And the vets are wonderful” in Greece, he adds. As previous residents of New York state, the Bowells remember how much money was needed there for veterinary care just for their own two cats. If they were trying to run this kind of sanctuary in the States, Richard says, the vet bills alone would make it untenable. It is a great deal cheaper to get the animals looked after in the Greek islands.
Much of the total funding, Richard says, is from the generosity of their many supporters, but it is also supplemented by Richard’s work as a writer. He and Joan have had to become experts at finding ways to fund the sanctuary so that they don’t have to worry as much in the future about every single vet bill that becomes due.
A much-published author, Richard wrote “The Seven Principles of Conscious World Citizenship” — hearkening back to Mahatma Gandhi, dealing with how we can learn to be compassionate and understanding about the environment and each other through a shift that occurs inside ourselves.
He also started up schools all over the world, called “Conscious World Citizen Academies,” which implement sustainable development goals through critical alignments of people and institutions.
The author’s courses and programs have been delivered not only to the United Nations, but to major organizations, diplomats and high-ranking UN officers, and to young adults and in large public forums and universities.
Bowell’s school in Denmark was where he first met his wife Joan, who is Danish, and who has joined him in his quest.
“We didn’t intend to do this”
Along with Richard and Joan’s return to the working world next year, Richard says, the couple plan to rent out their three beautiful villas to people who not only would like to spend time on an idyllic Greek island but want to be part of the project of helping the cats of Syros.
“They are going to become ecological villas on the premises of the God’s Little People Cat Sanctuary,” he says proudly.
“All the property we have here was paid for in our own savings when we came,” he continues. Recalling his life prior to the purchase of the sanctuary, Richard says he and his wife lived in a suburb of New York City when he worked as an official in the United Nations, and had subsequently lived on a beautiful property adjacent to that of the Queen of Denmark in that country.
“We didn’t intend to do this,” he says of the creation of the Sanctuary, explaining that the Syros property was originally meant to be a training center for his work.
“We had a very, very nice life in Denmark,” Richard recalls with great fondness. “Many people wonder how we could have left our life and thrown ourselves into such uncertainty. But we did — and at some point we had spent everything.
“I would have thought we would have been nervous — but we weren’t,” he explains. “The people here are very kind; they will always give you food. There’s loads of food and vegetables on the island. But we had already had our electricity cut off. I was standing in the main square and Joan and I had been talking about ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a croissant?'” he recalls.
“This was the first time in our lives that we hadn’t even been able to buy a croissant.” he says flatly.
Miracle occurs at lowest ebb for the Sanctuary
“That was about as low as we could be. We had nothing. We couldn’t borrow money from the bank (because of the financial crisis in Greece at the time). The banks were not lending anything. Shops were closing all over the place.
“And then this ten-euro note fluttered onto my ankle. Of course, I held it up above my head, calling out ‘Does this belong to anybody?’ because of course for someone here that was probably quite a lot of money — but no one claimed it. That was the beginning of our change of fortune,” Richard recalls.
“And this morning,” he continues, “we are 50% of the way toward buying a new piece of land about one kilometer away which is being sold for about $30,000 and we are going to try to raise the money, buy the land, clear it and make another sanctuary there.”
“Because right now we have 60 cats in our garden and the area around it. And that’s too many for one garden,” he says with a laugh. “And of course we’ve got to start paying wages because we have helpers here full-time.”
Several years ago, Richard and Joan received an eye-popping 70,000 applications for the job of caretaker after the BBC, unbeknownst to them, picked up the story that God’s Little People was looking for a caretaker.
Alerted to the story, the Bowells immediately turned on the television to see that their plea for someone to come and help care for their cats in the Greek sunshine was being broadcast to the entire world.
It would have been easier, Richard says, if they had “only gotten ten applications instead of 70,000,” and the telephone rang off the hook for two months. “After that point,” he remembers, “it was just press article after press article.”
Eventually, Jeffyne Telson, who had run ResQCats in Santa Barbara, California, was chosen. She managed the sanctuary for only two months, however, before having to return to her own sanctuary. “So we’ve been looking for a couple that want to stay here a long time, and take on the vision that we have had here,” Richard notes.
Quentin and Isabelle, a couple from France, are coming on January 5 to help manage the sanctuary as well. Another French woman who already works for the Bowells is in charge of all cat adoptions at present.
The Cat Cafe, Cat Garden and Cat Adoption agency which are all part of the estate will be managed in their absence while Richard and Joan work elsewhere, earning some of the funds necessary for all these activities.
“Trying to be an evolved human”
“It’s not just a bunch of cats lolling around and eating food. It’s a whole concept about the way to treat them,” Richard explains regarding the Sanctuary. “It’s like Gandhi says, it’s just trying to be an evolved human, trying to treat them properly.”
“And I have to work, Richard explains. “I have been putting off working all these years, so I am planning on working in Denmark or America. Because, you know — we have to live. We’ve been living like volunteers at a cat sanctuary and all of our money has gone into this.
“And we don’t mind,” he adds quickly. “We’re not making a point of saying that. It’s been the most fulfilling thing Joan has ever done and I would have to say that is true for me as well. It’s wonderfully fulfilling to see these happy little guys.
Remembering all he has done in the world, and most recently in Greece, as he tries to make the world a more humane place to live, Richard says “the best-selling book in the UN is my book called “An Urgent Plea from the Future,” about the essential shift that we are making in our evolution towards a different kind of human.
“At least some people are, I won’t say all are — and the UN has sent this book all around the world.
“I always say, what she does with cats, I try to do with humans.”
To donate to God’s Little People Cat Sanctuary, please visit the organization’s Facebook page, here.