After sunset on the famed Maracana on Monday night, two local women put out some cat food on a scrap of cardboard. It wasn't long before a dozen stray cats emerged from an adjacent abandoned building. They eyed the nearby humans with suspicion, in the way that cats look suspicious about everything, but finally came over for a nibble as their friends gathered around.
Not far away, Jackson Ferreira, who runs a humane animal control business focused on catch and release, set up a trap by putting some food in the back of the cage. Ferreira then stood approximately 20 feet away and held a piece of string attached to the door. When two of the cats went into the cage, he tugged on the string and the door slammed shut. The cats panicked, turned back but slammed against the door, then resorted to clawing at the cage. Ferriera threw a sheet over it and brought it into his truck.
Although you wouldn't have known it from the cats' vehement protests, Ferriera, who works with the Rio Olympics Sustainability Department, was there to help them. Danielle Bambace of World Animal Protection's Brazil chapter, who was also there to document the captures, told me Maracana is not a safe place for cats. Some local football fans consider them bad omens. Both fans and stadium workers have been known to kill cats if they see them on match day, sometimes in particularly brutal fashion; Bambace said that when they first came to inspect the area, they found about 60 dead cats around the stadium. Also, the cats breed quickly here. Before the Olympics, there were some 100 cats outside the stadium. Within a few months, Bambace estimates, there could be five or six hundred.
Ferriera trapped 10 cats that night. All will be spayed and neutered, and any that need veterinary care will receive it before being released back into a special cat area inside Maracana's grounds equipped with play areas that will hopefully keep them safe even after the Olympics are over.
Ferriera has had his eye on this cat colony for years, but the money has never been available to properly deal with it in a humane way. Because of this, Ferriera feels like one of the athletes competing at the Olympics, at least in the sense that he, too, has been waiting for many years to achieve a goal he's had for a long time. "Without the Olympics," he said, "it wouldn't happen."
When the IOC touts Olympic legacy projects, they tend to describe grand, city-transforming public works that affect millions of people. In reality, those massive-scale projects rarely, if ever, turn out the way they're described in bid books. Rio 2016, with its slate of public-private partnerships that almost entirely benefit the "private" element, is running out of legacy projects to credibly tout. But whether it's despite its humble goals or because of them, the animal sustainability programme is actually working.
Back in November, Rosângela Ribeiro, the veterinary programmes director for World Animal Protection (WAP), emailed the Rio 2016 sustainability department wanting to know what they planned to do with stray dogs and cats found during construction of Rio's venues. She only had domestic animals in mind, but within a few hours, the sustainability department invited her to a meeting. Ribeiro met with the department for four hours, asking them what they planned to do. As she remembers it, they told her that they had no real plan.
Over the ensuing months, WAP worked with the organisers to create a comprehensive plan to humanely handle wildlife and domestic animals found at the venues, as well as addressing long-standing stray issues near venues like the one at Maracana. Rio 2016 doesn't pay WAP anything, but the organisers cover the costs for trapping, spaying/neutering, and veterinary care.
WAP and Rio 2016 were planning to announce their partnership on June 22, until a Brazilian soldier shot and killed a jaguar at an Olympic torch ceremony in Manaus that day. The story went viral as just another anecdote regarding Rio 2016's half-baked preparations. WAP had no idea about the jaguar event, and Bambace says that if they had known, "it wouldn't have happened in any way." But, given the international headlines, they decided to put the announcement on hold for a few days. On June 26, the official Rio 2016 website published a story under the punny headline "Time For A Paws" about the Maracana initiative.
At WAP's recommendation, the sustainability department hired biologist Guilherme Andreoli to be the point of contact for all animal-related issues at venues. During an adoption event for the many good dogs rescued at Olympic venues in Barra da Tijuca last Saturday, Andreoli told me about the time he recently had to dive into a pool and put a feisty capybara in a headlock to remove it from the water. Not long after, he got a call alerting him to an alligator in a tent at the golf course, but he was waiting to hear if it was a "small, not a problem" alligator, as he put it, or a bigger, more worrying one.
The team handling all animal-related issues at all the Rio venues is a relatively small one given the scope of the games. In addition to Andreoli, the sustainability department has four people to respond to calls of stray dogs and cats, and 20 people to respond to other wildlife. WAP has had 10 people on the ground in Rio since July, working 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. every single day. "It's a huge job," Bambace told me at the dog adoption, recounting tales of chasing cats around venues in the middle of the night.
One of the biggest challenges to keeping animals safe during the games is Brazilian culture. Many dogs don't belong to a single person, but to the neighborhood in which they wander around during the day. It's also common for Brazilians to let their dogs wander around the neighborhood during the day and come in at night. This presents a problem when those dogs could wander into a road race of some kind, especially since the security at those events are men with 1) no animal training and 2) guns. This means WAP has to canvas the neighborhood and make sure any dog it captures doesn't belong to anyone.
Back outside Maracana, Ferreira caught 10 cats before calling it a night. He expects to do this 10 or 15 times during the Olympics and hopes to catch 90 percent of the cats, stunting the colony's growth and giving them a much healthier and safer life going forward. But, like many people say about Rio in general, he's worried about what happens after the Olympics leave. The deal with the sustainability department only extends through the Olympics. After that, given Rio's dire fiscal situation, there will not be any money to continue the catch, neuter, and release programme. He fears the problem will just return, the fans will continue killing cats, and everything will be just as bad in a year or two. "But, he shrugs, "at least we're doing something about it now."
Ferreira told Bambace and me about his most difficult moment during the Olympics so far. He got a call about a dog dangerously close to the bicycle road race course. Ferreira got there as fast as he could, but because the road was closed in one direction, he had to circle around. By the time he got out of the car and ran over, he thought he was too late, that the race would reach the dog, catching her in the middle of the road as a dozen cars and several dozen bicyclists sped by, a disaster waiting to happen for both the dog and the racers. Just then, the dog stopped running and froze, almost realising what she had done, and suddenly paralysed with fear, began begging someone to rescue her. Ferriera ran in and swooped her away, just in time.