Visitors to the National Gardens in Athens may like to believe that the 300 or so moggies gambolling and basking in the shrubberies and along the balustrades are the happiest and healthiest beasts in creation, but Christine Morison knows differently.
She recognises these cats as the rugged survivors of a society that holds them to be a species of vermin, kittens abandoned by the basketful to a life of uncontrolled breeding in a hostile environment, subjected to systematic poisoning by park gardeners and persecuted by some of the more sadistic elements of Greek youth.
Miss Morison, therefore, a former senior manager with the bankers Warburg, has made the cats of Greece the subject of her life's work.
She stands in a long imperial tradition of Englishwomen abroad, fortified by her mission to save life and disperse the ignorance of the indigenous population. Only the other day, Miss Morison was seated on the ferry between Piraeus and the island of Zakinthos, where she was delivering 24 adorable kittens to welcoming homes, when a young Greek mother gathered up her children, forbidding them to touch the cute little balls of fluff for fear of the nameless diseases they might transmit.
This, Miss Morison reflects sadly, is the kind of prejudice she is up against all the time. She is distressed, almost daily, as she goes to feed her colonies in the National Gardens, by groups of young mothers chuckling fondly as their toddlers kick the cats. 'I turn on the parents now,' she says. 'I tell them: 'These cats come from people's homes. They've been thrown out. Can't you understand they need food and attention - and you're letting your children kick them? What is the Greece of the future going to be like?'
'Frankly, you may as well talk to a brick wall. After all, their parents probably laughed over them when they kicked cats.'
All the same, the delivery of kittens to Zakinthos reversed the customary procedure. It is more usual for kittens, as they approach adulthood, to be evicted from the family apartment and left to fend for themselves.
They are not, Miss Morison stresses, feral cats as the British understand them, with all their immunities and survival instincts intact. These are dispossessed house pets, prey to respiratory infections, eye diseases, stray dogs, fast traffic and kicking children.
Miss Morison's career in the City took her into senior management at Warburg's with the prospect of promotion to a directorship. Reluctant to commit herself to the obligatory seven-day working week, she briefly left the world of business in order to form a branch of the Cat Protection League in Ealing.
Returning to office work as a computer programs analyst, she spent her holidays in Greece, where the plight of the animals precipitated her radical career move: 'I love cats and I just thought they needed someone out here. It's desperate.'
Now 40, she moved to Athens last year and set up the Greek Cat Welfare Society (UK) as a charity, with a businesslike development plan. She lives frugally on her City savings, but they will not support her much longer.
Like the doughty Englishwomen of the colonial missions, Miss Morison set about her work with brisk practicality. She rounded up most of the female cats in the National Gardens and had them neutered at the mobile clinic of a similarly motivated charity. Before she could get seriously started on the male cat population, the dumping season began, and 17 kittens were deposited at the gate to the gardens in two days.
The Greeks, she observes, employ malleable standards in their approach to cats. A deep-seated fear of rabies tells them to keep their distance. On the other hand, a family may dote on a tiny kitten, only to shift its mood when the juvenile grows to adolescence. 'Then they say that cats should live in the wild,' says Miss Morison, 'because this is natural for them. Then they come along and poison them. It's a dreadful death.'
Some Greeks do feed and look after stray cats, though even these stalwarts have been rattled by Miss Morison's initiative.
In the course of her neutering programme, she recalls collecting two street cats in the care of a flower-seller, only to be pursued to her house by the trader: 'He was panic-stricken. There was some story about his partner who was going to kill him if the cats were neutered. I think someone had told him they would die or perhaps that I was going to put them down. It's typical of the prejudices here.'
This month Miss Morison will be touring schools and colleges where English is spoken to try to spread the word about her education plan.
'Unless you change the mentality, so that people don't keep dumping cats, you won't change anything. But I do see hope in the younger people here. Sometimes I have difficulty relating the children to their parents because the children, the teenagers, seem so different.
'So I shall be going round the schools, trying to get them to understand.'Reuse content