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Arecibo Observatory Becomes Sanctuary To Cats After Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rico's Arecibo Observatory, home of the second-largest radio telescope in the world, is now a cat refuge. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, thousands of homes were destroyed and the observatory was damaged. In the midst of the disaster, members of the community looked for shelter and supplies at the observatory visitor center.

The Arecibo Observatory also attracted local cats looking for safety. Flaviane Venditti, a researcher at the observatory, told Space.com. "After the hurricane, many people left the island and, in the process, left their animals behind. We can see that based on how people-friendly some of the cats are. They might have come to the observatory to shelter during the storm."

The cats started hanging around the staff parking lot, seeking shelter in cars and breeding, which worried the observatory staff. Fortunately, Alessondra Springmann, a data analyst who worked with the Planetary Radar Science Group, started a rescue program, capturing, spaying and finding loving homes for the cats. She also created a Twitter account for the felines, @ObservatoryCats.

"Since she left, nobody kept helping to take care of the cats," Venditti said. "Because the population was increasing after Hurricane Maria, with the help of colleagues, I had the idea to start doing something about it."

Venditti and fellow staff members started a fundraising campaign via GoFundMe to spay and neuter the cats. The campaign has so far raised nearly $7,000. Donations are also being used to vaccinate and deworm the cats. "Some cats might also need more medical assistance," Venditti said. "I'm buying the food myself, but according to how much we spend with the vets, we could buy food with the help of donations too."

Now, ten cats live at Arecibo Observatory, which doesn’t include two litters of kittens born in the last few weeks. One cat, Gypsy, and her three kittens were adopted last winter. "Then, in February, we saw another mother with a litter, but the mother was more reserved and, after a couple months, abandoned the kittens," Venditti said. "The kittens — two brothers, Venus and Mars — kept crying out, and we started feeding them, and they have been hanging out at the same spot ever since."

"The next one is Old Tom," the cat caught sleeping in a red Jeep, Venditti added. "We think he's the father of many." Old Tom was neutered this week and is at the animal hospital as he recovers from the surgery. Meanwhile, females with newborn kittens will wait until their kittens grow before they can be spayed, she added.

Venditti said it was hard to find a veterinarian for the cats. "The biggest issue we were having was that clinics here are only by appointment," she said. "This one working with us is the only 24-hour vet clinic around, and they understood that we never know exactly when we'll be able to catch a cat, so they let us bring them whenever we can."

Several of the cats bear observatory-inspired names. One is named after the asteroid Apophis, "as a joke because he's so tiny and harmless," Venditti said. Another, Florence, a calico cat with a litter of kittens, is named after a triple asteroid system spotted right before Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane that hit Puerto Rico two weeks before Hurricane Maria.

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Another cat is named Midas after a the near-Earth asteroid from 1981, which the Arecibo Observatory has recently observed. Midas showed this summer and appeared to be ill.

"The cat stayed at the vet for several days and needed lab exams and medication for a while," Venditti said. "Finally, she got healthy, and the summer student decided to adopt it and flew back to the mainland with her at the end of the program."

To donate to the observatory cats, visit www.gofundme.com.

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