Madrid associations and animal-rights groups are braving the snow and the ice to provide care for thousands of animals affected by the extreme weather conditions in the Spanish capital this week.
Animals are also suffering the effects of Storm Filomena and the cold snap that followed on its heels: there are feral cat colonies going without food, shelters where structures have crumbled, and birds that are starving to death. But public officials admit that, given the general chaos, their priorities lie elsewhere right now.
Belén Muñoz is the principal of the Pío XII elementary school in the Madrid district of Tetuán, but these days, academic issues are not her only concern. Besides trying to manage online classes this week – Madrid schools have been closed since Monday, and some may not reopen for some days yet – she is also fighting to be allowed into La Almudena cemetery to feed a colony of around 400 cats that have been trapped by the snow.
Normally, volunteers like herself perform this task during established visiting hours with consent from security personnel. But the cemetery has been closed due to the effects of the storm, and neither Muñoz nor her colleagues have been able to get in. “We’re not trying to put anyone at risk, all we want is for them to open so we can leave some food out for the cats,” she says. “We’ve only been able to access the gate, but the cats are stuck at the spot where they usually take refuge. Many of them will already have starved or frozen to death.”
The city agency Madrid Salud, which is in charge of animal protection, admits it has received requests from groups that feed cat colonies at La Almudena and also in El Retiro and Juan Carlos I parks, which have been closed due to the risk of falling branches. A Madrid city spokesperson said that the environmental department, which manages parks, “will issue orders for the food to be left at the entrance, so park security personnel can distribute it just like it was done during the lockdown in the first wave of the pandemic.”
As for the cemetery, this spokesperson said that the municipal management agency is considering allowing access in areas that do not entail risk to people and under the volunteers’ own responsibility. More than 72 hours after it started to snow, volunteers had only been able to leave food at the gates, in the hopes that the felines would be able to reach it.
Dogs in the snow
Fran Díaz, president of Animal Rescue España (ARE), said that their center outside Madrid had prepared for the coming storm by stockpiling food and other necessities. But the reality of the blizzard, which dumped 40 centimeters of snow on the capital, exceeded all expectations.
“Fortunately all the animals that need shelter have it, and there is also enough food. Plus we have two people living at the center and two more who walked over during the storm to clear some of the open areas so the dogs could move around,” said Díaz. Even so, the roofing over some of the storage rooms collapsed, and several trees toppled over on the premises. The center is now asking for donations to deal with these problems as soon as possible.
Over at the shelter run by the Madrid Society for the Protection of Animals and Plants, which cares for 350 cats and dogs, the situation is more dire. Arantxa Sanz explained in urgent tones that the roof over the cat area collapsed under the weight of the snow, and access to the building remains limited.
“The vet had to go in alone, making his way through the snow, to transfer the cats to another area, but we can’t take food out there because the entrance is blocked. I’ve talked to the police, the Civil Guard and city officials, and the most I’ve achieved is some help from park rangers to clear the snow,” she noted. Several dogs survived the storm in open-air enclosures, and although they are now indoors, there is no way to get enough food to them.
At the GREFA wildlife refuge in Majadahonda, northwest of the capital, the blizzard has inflicted significant damage. Several of the animals escaped, and some are still missing. A group of 50 volunteers and workers were working to clear snow, remove fallen branches and feed the animals. Although a full assessment of the damage has not yet been done, workers said that one of the most badly affected areas of the center is the one devoted to breeding endangered species. GREFA, an NGO that is dedicated to animal conservation, is going to start a crowdfunding campaign to help cover the losses.
Not everything is left up to volunteers. The most common kinds of urban wildlife, such as sparrows, blackbirds and finches, are also at high risk. The non-profit group SEOBirdlife is asking citizens to help out by leaving breadcrumbs, diced fruit, grain and other kinds of food on their balconies and gardens.
“We are seeing a lot of dead birds, especially city-dwelling ones, from starvation,” said Luis Martínez, a bird expert at SEOBirdlife. “These birds need to maintain their body temperature during the long nights, and they use up a lot of energy to do that. So they need to eat a lot of food during daylight hours, but since the ground and vegetation are covered with snow, they are unable to reach any food. If we don’t help them, it’s very likely that they will literally freeze to death.”
English version by Susana Urra.