Peru: Campaigning for the rights of cats

A variety of grains at the Mistura International Gastronomic Fair in Lima, Peru
Image caption Lima is often referred to as the gastronomic capital of Latin America

The Gastronomic Festival of the Cat happens every September in La Quebrada, Peru, but this year it comes as animal rights activists step up their efforts to change attitudes.

"God created cats!" read one placard. "Murderers!" shouted a chorus of animal-rights activists.

Even a stray yellow dog seemed to be barking in support of cats. He was wagging his tail with great excitement.

It was a Sunday evening in Miraflores, the suburb of Lima where I live. A large group of mostly young protesters were yelling animal-rights slogans at pious residents who were tiptoeing quietly into church to attend mass.

The demonstrators held up portraits of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals. In front of them, a cordon of riot police stood guard and, behind, churchgoers formed a line - as if to protect their place of worship from the abuse.

The protesters had spotted a stray cat on the roof of the church days earlier and claimed that the priest had denied them access to rescue the animal.

What is more, they alleged that the man of God not only hated cats, but that he had been poisoning them because they sneaked into his church - something that he categorically denied.

This demonstration summed up, for me, Peru's rather confused attitude to its feline population.

For years, the central park in Miraflores has been home to dozens and dozens of stray cats.

A few were first introduced in the 1990s to control a rat infestation but they soon multiplied, after people began to abandon their own unwanted pets there.

Today, the cats stretch out on the green grass and flower beds, sleepily posing for tourists taking pictures. They are fed and protected by caring volunteers. But they are not loved by everyone.

Some residents think they spread diseases and on warm days the smell of urine can be overwhelming.

For the local priest, they are more of a nuisance than a local tourist attraction.

The Sunday demonstration was finally broken up by the police after some mild scuffles and, days later, the trapped cat was eventually rescued and given a proper home. But not all felines are so lucky.

Every September, a statue of Santa Efigenia is paraded to lively music and dancing on the streets of La Quebrada, a farming community south of Lima.

As part of the celebrations, residents set up food stalls and tables for the Gastronomic Festival of the Cat. It is a cat-eating feast that commemorates the time when the early slave settlers survived only - supposedly - by eating cat meat.

Dozens of the creatures are bred especially for the occasion, and then cooked in an array of Peruvian recipes.

There's spicy cat stew, or grilled cat with native huacatay herbs. Crowds of curious festival-goers get a kick out of eating a meat that is said to taste very much like rabbit.

And forget about oysters and rhino horn. In Peru, it is cat meat that is believed to be an aphrodisiac.

Most Peruvians, however, see cats only as pets and believe that cows, chickens and pigs are what should be served for dinner.

So if a furry house-guest is what you are after, then head for Jiron Ayacucho in central Lima.

Pet shops on this street not only sell cats but also exotic birds, monkeys and reptiles of dubious origin.

They all breathe through small holes in cardboard boxes or are crammed inside tiny rusty cages.

Animal rights activists condemn the conditions in which these animals are kept. They also wear fake horns and hold theatrical protests outside bull-fighting rings.

With so many pressing issues in Peru - such as poverty, inequality, crime and corruption - improving the rights of animals is not a priority for government officials.

But animal rights activists point out that Peru's social problems should not blind people to the need to protect animals as other countries do.

Here too, they fight against animal maltreatment, neglect, abuse and cruelty - even if it means standing up against much-revered institutions like the Catholic Church, or attempting to turn millions of meat-loving Peruvians into vegetarians!

And until that happens, I will be expecting further protests outside my local church.

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