A cat gave birth in Joan and Richard Bowell’s garden on the Greek island of Syros in 2010. She had two kittens, and one was ill.
The Bowells took them in and named them: Pepper was the mother, Tiny and Ninja the babies. The trio joined two cats that the couple had brought to Syros from Denmark, Joan’s native country, and the Bowells viewed it as a mere expansion of their two-person family. They now had not a few cats, but not so many that they couldn’t take them when they moved to New York, where Richard worked with the United Nations.
But this was Greece, where cats posing against white buildings become the subjects of postcards but not of much affection. The Bowells kept finding sick and injured felines and kittens, and soon their acre of island idyll had become a cat sanctuary they called God’s Little People. The name was not a statement about faith, they say, but about a philosophy: Cats are important as individuals, with a right to be free and to be given care and attention.
“People think animals are things that you pick up and put down, and that’s not how we thought about it,” said Richard, 66, a writer and philosopher originally from London. “So we had to, at some point, make a commitment that we would never leave them or leave them in a lesser state than we kept them.”
As their feline population exceeded 60, they realized space prevented much growth. They wanted to finally move to New York, where Joan planned to establish another cat sanctuary outside the city. So on Aug. 5, she solicited applications on Facebook for a modestly paid job managing God’s Little People.
Within six weeks, they had nearly 40,000 responses.
Each day in August, Joan received 1,000 to 1,600 emails. She kept updating the Facebook post, emphasizing that the job entails scooping poop, cleaning vomit and making “heartbreaking” decisions about gravely wounded or sick cats, and clarifying that the tiny house provided to the manager would not accommodate families or pets brought from home.
Even so, applications kept coming, from people in more than 90 nations. Some were from refugees who wanted to send the pay to their families back home, and some were from women seeking to flee abusive relationships, Joan said. Several were from people who’d tried to run their own cat rescues.
The Bowells enlisted a half-dozen friends to help review and sort the flood of queries. Although the position is in paradise and involves many cats, Joan said it is not the “dream job” so many headlines about their story declared. The cats need lots of feeding, medicating and trips to the vet to be neutered or spayed, and the caretakers also must post cat photos to Facebook and cobble together donations. There’s not much time for sleep, she said.
“It has been pretty much round-the-clock for me,” said Joan, 52, an artist. “The biggest challenge is to give each of them the attention they need.”
And then there are the rescues. Richard said his wife goes to extreme lengths to save cats. She once heard a kitten stuck in a water tank that couldn’t be opened. The cat would have to come out the small pipe it had entered. Joan sat at the tank encouraging the cat for 12 hours, he said, and eventually she succeeded by broadcasting into the pipe a YouTube video of a mother cat calling her babies.
The story of the job ad went viral, and the Bowells now are in talks with filmmakers. Richard said he believes the enormous response isn’t about a spiral of news coverage or even the Internet’s infatuation with cats. He says it, also is about humanity.
“This is bigger than just a job on a Greek island,” he said. “There’s a kind of wish for people to return to some level of humanity at a time when things are degenerating into such inhumanity . . . people want to see a future that can be worked toward.”
This month, the Bowells had whittled the towers of applications to a few finalists. Among those was 62-year-old Californian Jeffyne Telson, whose husband sent her the link to the ad in August.
“He said, ‘Jeffyne, this job has you written all over it. Are you going to wait until you’re too old to try to access your dream?’” Telson recalled.
For 21 years, Telson has run RESQCATS in Santa Barbara, Calif. It takes only strays — cats found roaming alleys, the kittens behind the shed. The cats like those on Greek islands, which Telson has visited three times.
“I didn’t do all the tourist stuff on the Greek islands. I separated myself from the tourists and walked up and down the streets looking for the kitties,” Telson said. “I thought, ‘There’s just so much to be done here.’ “
So she wrote to the Bowells, explaining that she’d placed 3,000 cats and kittens in homes over the decades. Those too sick or antisocial to be adopted stay at her sanctuary, which now has 15 residents, including four feline leukemia patients in their own isolated area. “I believe that every life is precious and worth saving,” Telson wrote in her application.
Her submission stood out immediately, Richard said. The Bowells traveled to Santa Barbara to meet Telson in mid-September, and Joan and Jeffyne had an instant connection. Both are artists; neither has had children.
“It was just a match made in heaven,” said Telson, who accepted their offer.
Telson said she’s giddy. “This will be a wonderful opportunity to spend with just cats. And, I think, a time of reflection and gratefulness.”