MUTARE – Patched and motionless,on the seals of cages that imprison them, their beautiful shiny black coats hide them in the shade — only to be betrayed by their emerald green eyes that pierce the distance beyond their wire-mesh confines.
Such gentle and graceful felines!
Born into communities that are deeply prejudiced against black cats, the three cats at a Mutare Society for the Prevention of Cruelty against Animals (SPCA) shelter have been caged for months; prisoners of a human conscience seared by irrationality!
Non among the nearly 200 000 black Zimbabweans in this eastern border city are offering sanctuary to them in superstitious dread.
Now, says Lynne Brown, the society’s chairperson, they can give them away for free to anyone, provided they have the appropriate home environment.
The source of the aversion against these elegant creatures is a puzzle even to Noel Usore, an SPCA inspector who has been at the centre since 1970.
For Brown, who is white, it is ironic that there appears to be a racial prejudice against the black cats among local black folk.
She says in her culture if a black cat crosses one’s path, it would be a taken for a good omen.
Walking along Second Street recently, a scarred one-eyed black cat dashed across the path onto an undeveloped stand where it made an abrupt stop only for his attention to be drawn to a young man who had promptly began to pick up stones to attack it, out of pure aversion.
An enquiry as to why he wanted to stone the cat was responded to with a wide guilt-filled grin and a pat on my shoulder as he marched on with the cat bursting away in fear of the abuse that may have pushed it onto the streets and quite often confronts it on every other corner.
SPCA is a voluntary non-profit sharing organisation providing temporary shelter for abused animals as they find alternative homes for them. Her organisation also suffers stigma, alleged to be holding a Eurocentric view on non-human life forms. SPCA pushes for improved human–animal relationships, Brown said.
The biggest use locals have in relating to pets is that they are taken as tools for hunting and security.
Brown’s organisation has to finance its own operations and occasionally conduct fundraising activities which she said are usually uncomfortably ‘‘too white’’ and were making efforts to engage especially young blacks with education on animal rights and responsible pet ownership.
They sometimes benefit from a contract they have with Mutare City Council which brings either abused or stray animals but only pay for their upkeep for only the first week with costs thereafter falling on them.
A while ago her organisation however, had a raw deal from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) which handed them 14 goats which they kept for five months.
The goats had been found in a residential area.
To properly care for the goats they had to move them to a farm outside Mutare before the police requested that they reposes them for auctioning from which SPCA received $36, which they said was equivalent to 10 percent of the total sales.
But then it is not all goats that are taken in and can be sold as locals are notorious for using them for ritual purposes by supposedly driving spirits into them before dumping them from where they are taken in by SPCA.
When this reporter toured the place, there were two which they had no hope would ever leave on account of the prevalent fear.
Dogs however, have it easier, being taken in and out with relative ease, with pure breeds better than mutts.
Sadly, Brown said, people were unduly too particular about only adopting pure bred dogs, leaving mutts.
SPCA members laugh at the irony given that most people are themselves ‘‘very mixed in where they come from.’’
“Mutts are usually stronger and do not have most of genetic health problems that usually affect pure breeds,” Brown said.
On occasion, Usore said, they are forced to put down some as they would have been severely abused.
But some animals that survive abuse now stand out as symbols of resilience like one dog they have adopted which lost two legs on one side to a snare in nearby Gombakomba community some 30km south of Mutare.
As if to spite the neglect it suffered on human hands, a bitch which was taken in while lactating ended up suckling five puppies from three different mothers, Brown observed as he took this reporter on a tour of the facility.
Random street interviews to see how young Zimbabweans viewed human-animal relationships showed a general religion-inspired wanton disregard for other life forms.
“Our church prohibits keeping dogs as they are considered impure,” said James Sithole, 23, without elaborating.
He is a member of the African Apostolic Church, one of the populous apostolic churches in Zimbabwe with close to two million followers.
Many, Tonderai Sigauke, 40, view dogs as unhygienic and as unsuitable for households whose religious beliefs demand cleanliness as part of its core tenants.
For yet others, dogs are such vicious animals that they cannot risk sharing living space with.
Middle aged Susan Sambo confessed a phobia for dogs emanating from a report in recent memory of a fatal dog attack of an infant in Chikanga high density suburb, which is also her place of residence, and more so because she also has young children.
Many young people however, expressed more positive feelings towards pets but complained of restrictive requirements to own them by the local authority which demand a fenced or walled residence to own a dog as well as cultural backgrounds of their parents that dogs do not have a place in the house.
“Because of the learning I have had on how to relate to dogs on television especially The Dog Whisperer on National Geographic, I would love to own a dog, even a toy breed but Council by-laws are stopping me,” said 20-year-old Sifelani Mathe.
Mathe said he expected the current aversion for putting up with a dog to wane when his generation would be old enough to start their own families.
Except for black cats, most people interviewed said they would not mind owning one as they are also less expensive to maintain.
But for now, locals are spooked by the black felines. – Bernard Chikato