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The kitties of the Caribbean

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By Amelia Tarallo
Hometown Weekly Staff

When most people are looking for a new cat, wherever they may find them, they can assume that their new furry friend is from continental North America. Perhaps they were roaming the streets as a stray or they were surrendered.

There’s a local exception to that rule, though. With two locations, one in Saint Thomas and one in Wellesley, Off the Rocks Rescue, whose charges are frequently featured on Hometown Weekly’s pet page, has worked to transport stray cats from the U.S. Virgin Islands. These big-eared cats have come a long way to find their forever homes, and it’s all thanks to the staff and volunteers of Off the Rocks Rescue.

Dawn Balcazar, one of the co-founders of Off the Rocks Rescue, has been aiding in animal rescues for years, often focusing on the Caribbean by fostering and transporting animals. In between Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, Balcazar returned to Saint Thomas to aid in the evacuation of three animal shelters.

The local animal shelters of the Virgin Islands suffered devastating effects as a result of the 2017 hurricane season - and it was compounded by the fact that the Virgin Islands suffer from an overpopulation of dogs and cats because of the constant warm weather and year-round births, unfixed animals, and the difficulty of rescuing animals from the islands. For reference, one cat can have five litters per year, meaning that it isn’t unusual for one cat to produce 25 kittens per year. This overpopulation made it difficult to evacuate the local shelters. According to Off the Rocks Animal Rescue’s website, some of these shelters would be completely emptied out, only to be filled to capacity with stray and abandoned pets only two days after.

Balcazar met vet tech Kelsey Wyrick during her visit and the two instantly formed a bond over their love of helping animals in the Virgin Islands. “We paired up to form Off the Rocks Rescue with the mission to help aid in spay/neuter efforts on St. Thomas, and to bring adoptable cats to their forever homes in the Northeast,” writes Balcazar. “In Wellesley, we built a small shelter housed in my basement, where we can quarantine cats (a requirement for transport into MA from out of state) and care for them.” Since then, Off the Rocks Rescue has expanded from St. Thomas to also take cats from the British Virgin Islands and St. John.

More than 300 cats have made their way to Off the Rocks Rescue since it received shelter status in Massachusetts. It has taken hard work to get these cats off the ground and into the arms of new loving families. Off the Rocks in Saint Thomas often has anywhere from 16 to 35 cats preparing for travel. In order to leave the islands, staff and volunteers must prepare the cats to leave, which requires following the guidelines set by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. This includes giving the cats all necessary vaccinations, treating them with anti-parasite medication, ensuring they are healthy, and often spaying and neutering them before they leave.

“That process can take up to several months. Sometimes kittens are found abandoned at only a few days old and are three months old by the time they reach us,” notes Balcazar. When they are ready to leave the islands, the cats are paired with volunteers who will carry them in a cat carrier. “We pay for the cost of the pet travel, which ranges from $125-$200, and meet travelers at the departing and arriving airports.” Once en route, the volunteer will fly with their assigned feline to northeast airports, where they will be met by Off the Rocks staff. “I can’t stress enough how important the travelers are for our rescue process to work,” explains Balcazar.

The work done by Balcazar, Wyrick, and their network of volunteers has made an impact both in the U.S. Virgin Islands and back home in Wellesley. They have watched sickly, parasite and infection-ridden kittens grow into bouncy family cats. “When a wonderful loving family comes in and are so delighted to see these beautiful healthy kittens, and I see them head for their new lives, it makes me so happy,” writes Balcazar.

While the cats benefit from the rescue, Balcazar also hopes that volunteers also benefit from aiding in the rescue and care of the cats at the Wellesley Shelter. “As we all know, there is a lot of anxiety and depression in young people and oftentimes, they don’t have enough down time to relax and de-stress. I wanted Off the Rocks Wellesley to be a resource for the community, where young people and adults can come to socialize cats, play with kittens and de-stress. Our volunteers are largely high school (Needham, Wellesley, Natick) and Wellesley College students. We have youth under 16 here accompanied by a parent. There are comfy couches and we encourage students to bring their homework, volunteer with a friend, and after doing the basic chores of feeding and cleaning, hang out with the kittens. It is gratifying to me not only to rescue cats, but to provide a soothing environment for young people and others in the community. It is therapeutic!” explains Balcazar.

There are many ways to help Off the Rocks Rescue, whether it be helping with transport, volunteering at the Wellesley shelter, or even donating money to help cover the costs. While these friendly felines are finding new homes, volunteers can return home knowing that they’ve made a difference.

To learn more about Off the Rocks Rescue, to volunteer, or to make a donation, visit www.offtherocksrescue.org.

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