It began in 2010, when a cat gave birth in Joan and Richard Bowell’s garden on the Greek island of Syros. She had two kittens, and one was ill.
The Bowells took them in and gave them names: Pepper was the mother, Tiny and Ninja the babies. The trio joined two cats the couple had brought to Syros when they moved from Denmark, Joan’s native country, and the Bowells viewed it as a mere expansion of their two-person family. They now had not a small number of cats but not so many that they couldn’t take the animals along when their plan to move to New York, where Richard worked with the United Nations, came to pass.
However, this was Greece, where cats posing against white buildings become the subjects of many postcards but not necessarily the objects of much affection. The Bowells kept finding felines bearing injuries and sicknesses and kittens, and soon the couple’s acre of island idyll had become a cat sanctuary they called God’s Little People. The name was not a statement about faith, they say, but about a philosophy — that cats are important as individuals, with a right to be free and to be cared for.
“People think animals are things that you pick up and put down, and that’s not how we thought about it,” said Richard Bowell, 66, a writer and philosopher who is originally from London. “So we had to, at some point, make a commitment that we would never leave them or leave them in a lesser state than we kept them.”
As the feline population roaming their property rose well above 60, the couple said, they realized space prevented the operation from growing much more. They wanted to finally make that move to New York, where Joan Bowell planned to establish another cat sanctuary outside the city. So on Aug. 5, she created a Facebook post soliciting applications for a modestly paid job managing God’s Little People.
The Bowells had posted a similar ad a few years back and gotten a couple handfuls of responses. This time, they hoped for 25, maybe 50.
Within six weeks, they had nearly 40,000.
Each day in August, Joan Bowell received 1,000 to 1,600 emails. She kept updating the Facebook post, emphasizing that the job was indeed real and clarifying that the tiny house provided to the manager would not accommodate families or pets brought from home and that it is a job that entails scooping poop, cleaning vomit and making “heartbreaking” decisions about gravely wounded or sick cats.
Even so, the applications kept coming, and they came from people in more than 90 nations. Some were letters from refugees who wanted to send the pay to their families back home, and some were from women seeking to flee abusive relationships, Joan Bowell said. Several were from people who’d tried to run their own cat rescues, she said.
The Bowells enlisted a half-dozen friends to help review and sort the flood of queries, which they say astonished them. Although the position is in paradise and involves many cats, Joan Bowell said it is not exactly the “dream job” so many headlines about their story declared. There is lots of feeding, medicating and taking cats to the vet to be neutered or spayed, as well as posting cat photos to Facebook, and cobbling together donations. There’s not much time for sleep, she said.
“It has been pretty much round-the-clock for me,” said Joan Bowell, 52, an artist. “The biggest challenge is to give each of them the attention they need.”
And then there are the rescues. Richard Bowell said his wife goes to extreme lengths to save cats, recounting a time she heard a kitten stuck inside a water tank. The tank could not be opened, so the cat would have to come out a small pipe it had entered. Joan Bowell sat at the tank encouraging the cat for 12 hours, he said, and eventually she succeeded by broadcasting into the pipe a YouTube video of a mother cat calling her babies.
Not long after they started the rescue, a veterinarian on the island asked why they would bury an injured cat that was being euthanized, Richard Bowell said.
“And we said to him, ‘Well, it’s to remind ourselves of our humanity,'” he said. “When you think you can just discard things when you’re finished with them, then you do it with everything.”
The story of the job ad went viral, and the Bowells are in talks with filmmakers about a movie. Richard Bowell said he believes the enormous response isn’t about one news report starting a spiral of coverage, or even about the Internet’s infatuation with cats. He says it, too, is about humanity.
“This is bigger than just a job on a Greek island,” he said. “There’s a kind of wish for people to return to some level of humanity at a time when things are degenerating into such inhumanity . . . people want to see a future that can be worked toward.”
Earlier this month, the Bowells had whittled the towers of applications to a handful of finalists. Among those was 62-year-old Californian Jeffyne Telson, whose husband sent her the link to the job ad in August.
“He said, ‘Jeffyne, this job has you written all over it. Are you going to wait until you’re too old to try to access your dream?’” Telson recalled.
For 21 years, Telson has run RESQCATS in Santa Barbara, which takes only strays — the cats found roaming alleys, the kittens located behind the shed. The cats like those on Greek islands, which Telson has visited three times.
“I didn’t do all the tourist stuff on the Greek islands. I separated myself from the tourists and walked up and down the streets looking for the kitties,” Telson said. “I thought, ‘There’s just so much to be done here.’”
So Telson sent a letter to the Bowells, explaining that she’d placed 3,000 cats and kittens in homes over the decades. Those too sick or antisocial to be adopted stay at her sanctuary; currently, it has 15 residents, including four feline leukemia patients in their own isolated area. “I believe that every life is precious and worth saving,” Telson wrote in her application.
Her submission stood out immediately, Richard Bowell said. The Bowells traveled to Santa Barbara to meet Telson in mid-September, and he said that “there was an instant connection between Joan and Jeffyne — and the other way around.” Telson, like Joan Bowell, was an artist. She, too, had never had children.
“It was just a match made in heaven,” Telson said.
An offer, needless to say, was made and accepted.
Telson said she will leave her rescue in the care of volunteers this winter, when it shuts down for the season, and spend several months in Syros. Other finalists will probably pick up the management after that, while the Bowells focus on their U.S. plans and renovating a large manor that has been offered to them in Syros. It would allow the sanctuary to expand and serve as “a center for volunteers and an international center to show people how to work with cats,” Richard Bowell said.
Telson, who spends much of her time as president of a busy organization on administrative tasks, said she’s giddy.
“This will be a wonderful opportunity to spend with just cats,” she said. “And, I think, a time of reflection and gratefulness.”