The Cats of Old San Juan Are Being Run Out of Town. Locals Can Empathize.


A federal plan to remove feral cats from a historic site in Puerto Rico’s capital has upset some residents, who are also feeling pushed out as housing costs soar.

WHY WE’RE HERE

We’re exploring how America defines itself one place at a time. In Puerto Rico, a historic neighborhood is undergoing a transformation unwelcome by many of its residents.


Reporting from San Juan, P.R.

Feral cats have roamed the blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan for as long as anyone can remember. They meander around a historic fortress that looms over San Juan Bay, hiding from the hot sun under sea grape bushes.

San Juaneros feed them. Tourists snap their pictures. But probably not for much longer: The federal agency that manages the fortress and the land around it wants the cats gone, saying that they are a nuisance and could be carrying disease.

Puerto Rico, a United States territory plagued by financial troubles and natural disasters, has bigger things to worry about. But the plan to remove close to 200 cats from Old San Juan — a neighborhood of San Juan that was the first place on the island settled by the Spanish — has struck an emotional chord at a time when many Puerto Ricans feel like they, too, are in danger of being pushed from their homes.

The reasons differ — for the people, it is investors snapping up properties and pushing up rents and home prices — yet in Old San Juan, the two stories could ultimately share the same ending: a beloved neighborhood so changed that, at least some longtime residents fear, it will have lost its soul.

“This town may end up like an empty shell,” said Rei Segurola, 72, who wonders whether he should move out of Old San Juan. “It may end up with a lot of facades, like Disney or Epcot or Las Vegas.”

The fight over the cats began a couple of years ago, when the National Park Service, which operates the San Juan National Historic Site, a 75-acre stretch of rocky peninsula that includes the old fortress known as El Morro, said the feline population had become too problematic.

San Juan was founded by Spanish colonialists in 1521. The cats have been around at least since the mid-20th century, when a mayor of San Juan is said to have brought them in to kill rats.

Last year, the park service said that its goal was to “alleviate nuisance issues” and “align the visitor experience with the purpose of the park.”

Residents wondered what that meant. Had tourists complained? What about wealthy new investors who moved in during the pandemic? They got few answers.

Thousands of written comments came in, including some in favor of the plan.

“I am a resident of the area and I use the space almost daily and it is extremely unpleasant,” one person wrote in Spanish. “The cats create areas where they accumulate their excretions and it becomes unsanitary and unsafe for one’s health.”

Most of the commenters, though, pleaded for the cats to stay.

“If they are causing any issues,” one wrote, “it should be left to the people of San Juan to decide. They are the members of the local community who should get the say on whether they want them there or not.”

But in November, the park service decided to press forward. It said that if Save a Gato, a nonprofit organization that has trapped, neutered and spayed the cats of Old San Juan for nearly 20 years, was unable to find homes for about 170 of them by June, it would hire a company to remove and likely euthanize them. Only cats living on the historic site would be removed.

In March, Alley Cat Allies, a nonprofit group based in Maryland, sued in federal court in Washington to stop the plan.

Save a Gato has trapped about 50 of the cats since November; about half of them have been adopted, or soon will be.

The park service did not respond to specific questions about what might happen next. But on Monday, it took the first formal step toward seeking a contractor to remove the remaining cats.

Some of the cats are too feral to adopt. Even catching them can be difficult, said Danielle Tabler, a longtime volunteer.

“I’ve been trying to trap one for more than two years,” Ms. Tabler said as she and Irma Podestá, who has worked with Save a Gato for 15 years, walked the waterfront trail below the enormous stone fortress, filling several feeding stations with fresh kibble.

Part of the problem is that people keep dropping off more cats. “In Puerto Rico, there are so many abandoned animals,” Ms. Podestá said. “It’s a never-ending story.”

The number of abandoned animals on the island surged after Hurricane Maria in 2017, when many Puerto Ricans lost their homes. Amid natural disasters and economic uncertainty, Puerto Rico’s population shrank by about 12 percent from 2010 to 2020; the island now has about 3.2 million people, many of whom have struggled to keep up the rising cost of housing in particular.

As she walked, Ms. Podestá rattled off the names of friends who used to live in Old San Juan until their rents doubled or tripled and pushed them out.

“I am one of those who always worries that she will get displaced,” she said.

Many of Old San Juan’s brightly painted colonial-era houses, with their tall ceilings and airy courtyards, were once home to artists and craftspeople who gave the place a bohemian feel. Families lived there, too, many over generations. Now, homes have increasingly been turned into vacation rentals. Building after building is lined with the telltale sign of short-term occupancy: combination master locks used to store keys.

Mr. Segurola, a retired lawyer and teacher, sold his home in another San Juan neighborhood in 2015 to move to Old San Juan, which he had always loved because it was so charming and close knit. “Now, that sense of community is falling apart,” he said. “It’s the complete opposite of what one looked for and had in Old San Juan.”

He and others blame, at least in part, a tax law passed in Puerto Rico in 2012, when the island faced an economic collapse. The law, now known as Act 60, offers a break on long-term capital gains, dividends, interest and other taxes for investors who buy a home in Puerto Rico if they have not been a resident for at least 10 years prior.

Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi, who was defeated in a primary election this week, has stood by the law, calling it an important way for Puerto Rico to attract outside investors.

The influx of outside buyers, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, has distorted the real estate market. That, along with inflation and rising interest rates, put rents and homeownership out of reach for many Puerto Ricans, said Alonso Ortiz, the founder of El Otro Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization that tries to slow displacement.

His organization found that 71 percent of residential properties purchased in Old San Juan between 2018 and 2022 were purchased by beneficiaries of Act 60, or companies associated with them. Often, Mr. Ortiz said, those owners “kick families out, remodel the properties and then turn them into Airbnbs or short-term rentals, causing earlier rent prices to skyrocket.”

Puerto Rico lawmakers passed regulations on short-term rentals last year requiring owners to pay an annual fee on their properties, but critics said more far-reaching action was needed.

Margarita Gandía, a longtime Old San Juan resident and real estate agent, said that with clients seeking investment properties, she tries to emphasize the district’s historic character and friendly feel. Some buyers have shown a commitment to maintaining it, she said, but others have not.

“Old San Juan is going to become a ghost town,” she said. “You don’t run into neighbors. People used to say good morning. Yes, you can feel the difference.”

Pleas from Ms. Gandía and other residents to the city government to do a better job of collecting trash and regulating noise have gone unheeded, she said, “as if we did not exist,” while the federal government addresses what she considers the more trivial cat issue.

“The cats,” she said, “are not the problem.”



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