'Bora Bora may be the ultimate human paradise; with balmy South Pacific breezes caressing the palm trees, powdery white sand beaches and the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon, paradise doesn't get much better but not for Bora Bora's animal population. Wandering along the roadside are packs of homeless, abandoned animals. Many are former pets that belonged to departed island residents and visitors; others are their offspring, which multiply without any hope of shelter, food or care. There are no animal shelters and the island's one veterinarian charges astronomical fees.
'At the Hotel Bora Bora we were quickly aware of the abandoned animal problem by watching a family of cats that searched the area for scraps of food in order to survive. These were not the type of "hotel cats" looked after by the staff that one finds from time to time in other parts of the world; they were more likely to be shooed away, but had nowhere else to go. They had fear in their eyes and were extremely skittish around people a sad indication that they had probably been abused.
'Each evening we took dinner in the hotel's open-air dining room and watched as one tiny Tuxedo cat, no more than a few months old, went from table to table tapping on the legs of diners, begging for food. The evening routine eventually brought the kitten to our table, where he would linger as we offered him morsels (left). He became so friendly that he would sit in our laps and even sipped on a coffee.
'Sadly, our vacation was coming to an end. We could not imagine the fate that might be facing our new friend, whom we named for his artful ways Gauguin. We had seen his mother, who was a rough-and-tumble type and had knocked him around. She was far wilder and reflected what a few years of island life did to a cat in Bora Bora and how Gauguin would become. It was a fate from which we decided we wanted to protect him. Speaking with the hotel's manager and his wife, they encouraged us to take Gauguin back with us. "He will not have much of a life, if any, here in Bora Bora," she said.
'The first challenge was to place Gauguin in a pet carrier, so that he could get the necessary travel documents from the veterinarian. Using a trail of food, we lured him into the carrier, but the moment the door was shut he began howling with horror. The next step was off to the veterinarian to get his identification chip and passport. Back in our room after his ordeal, we could tell that the poor little fellow was terrified. In an attempt to give him a bit of freedom on his last night on Bora Bora we put his carrier in the bathroom and opened the door of the carrier, thereby giving him some room to stretch. The next morning we discovered just how much he had stretched. The carrier was empty, the bathtub empty, and the floor showed no sign of Gauguin. Where had he gone, we wondered? Eight feet up, huddled in a corner of a small bathroom window, was Gauguin.
'It took a lot of tenacity to recapture the kitten but finally he was back in the cage, as terrified as ever and occasionally emitting a deep, mournful howl. We flew from Tahiti to Kona, Hawaii, where the kind Hawaiians allowed Gauguin to remain on the aircraft during refuelling, because at that time cats and dogs were subject to isolation for six months if brought to Hawaii. Having come from Tahiti, where there is no rabies, made this part of the trip easier. From Hawaii we continued our journey home to Santa Barbara, California.
'According to the hotel manager, Gauguin was a descendant of a Californian cat! The story goes that, years earlier, actor Peter Fonda had sailed his boat from California to Bora Bora. When Fonda finally put ashore on the island, his female cat jumped ship, never to return to the boat. She stayed at the Bora Bora hotel, eventually giving birth to a litter that included Gauguin's mother. But his California heritage did little to appease Gauguin. The moment he was allowed out of his carrier to explore he disappeared under a bed, where he stayed for several weeks, coming out to eat only when we were not in the room.
'It took lots of patience and enticement with treats to build Gauguin's confidence in us. Even years later he is still really a one-person cat, who sometimes hides under beds when strangers, especially men, enter the room. At night he sleeps on the bed under the arm of his mistress. He has a sweet and affectionate nature.
'Gauguin is now an indoor cat, but he has an outside 'room', double-screened and shake-roofed to keep him safe from predators. He is most vociferous, with a wide range of meows that often can sound like some garbled English words. He gets especially talkative when toilets are flushed, perhaps impressed by Western plumbing. But in the end he is a unique cat, saved from a dismal fate, who brings constant joy to his family. We think he knows he now has a good life.'