Luca and the Streets of Palomino

Luca and the Streets of Palomino

Colombia is a country known for its dangerous past. It rose to infamy in the 90s along with Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, and was even ranked the most violent country in the world at one point. But recently, following a steep decrease in crime, Colombia has opened up as a popular destination for adventure-seeking travelers, eager to check out its natural beauty and authentic culture.



Earlier this year, Jeffrey McLean, a private music teacher and lifelong cat lover, was one of those adventure seekers, and encountered something unexpected along the way...


“I traveled to South America with two close friends in January. We visited Panama and then took a sailboat down to Colombia and were visiting all over. We were having a great time – lots of beaches. About halfway through the trip, we were up in the North Coast, and we arrived at this pretty impoverished undeveloped town called Palamino. We got to our hostel in the morning, and were heading to our room, going through the hostel grounds, and there was this little kitten there. She was very young – less than 3 months, for sure.”


“She was quite striking visually because she had one blue eye and one green eye. For the first hour or so I just played with her. In that time, she ate probably about half a dozen worms off the ground, and she'd drink the water from the pool. So she was drinking pool water for hydration, and eating worms for food, along with, I was guessing, whatever people would feed her from the hostel's outdoor restaurant.”

“I hung out with her for a while. She was very sweet. She wasn't owned by anyone at the hostel. I confirmed this with my terrible Spanish with some of the people that work there. I was like “does this cat have an owner, or is it a stray?” and they basically laughed. They knew the cat I was talking about because she always stayed close to the hostel to get scraps from the customers. No one seemed to give a shit about her so she didn't have a name.”

“That night I was chatting with one of my buddies. We were having dinner and having a good time. And he helped convince me.

I said, “what would you think if I were to figure it out and take that cat home?

And he said, “I think people would think you're crazy, and it is pretty ridiculous... but if it's true love, it's true love.”


I decided to go for it, and also that she should be named Luca.”

“What followed was a lot of paperwork and a lot of phone calls and a lot of translating. And the long and short of it was that I spent a lot of time talking with the various airlines – domestic and international – and customs and government agents. I was flying out of place named Santa Marta – which is about an hour away from Palomino – to Bogata – which is a huge city in Columbia – and from there to some stopover in the US, and only then to Vancouver. So I had to figure it out with everyone.

I spent a number of days just doing full time work. Having a few coffees in the morning, another one in the afternoon. My friends would be out adventuring and it would be like “Can't go today guys, too much work to do!””


Being a stray animal in an impoverished country is a tough racket. Even in Bogota, for example – Colombia's massive capital city – where an estimated 350,000 stray cats and dogs roam the streets at any given time, there's only a single shelter dedicated to their care. And the only other institution for strays exists for the sake of controlling their population, euthanizing 400 animals per week. This is just a fact of life in places where even most human-beings are struggling for basic necessities.


“I wanted to take her right then but we still had about 10 or 12 days left in the vacation. My friends convinced me to leave her at the hostel for the time being, because she had grown up to 8 or 10 weeks already, and she was fine. So they're like, “she'll be fine for another 10 days,” right?

I decided to bribe some of the hostel employees to look out for her. So you know how you get get brightly coloured wristband when you go to a musical festival or something? – every guest in the hostel had one of those wristbands. So what the hostel employees did was grab one of those little wristbands and put it around her neck, like a collar, which was super cool because it was like “don't mess with this cat, this cat belongs to the hostel!”

So for about half of the remaining days we were traveling, I worked hard making arrangements. I rebooked my flight with an airline allowing cats in the cabin. I didn't want to have her in the cargo hold because it just seemed too sketchy. So I wanted to make sure I got the right carrying case so she could fly with me. For the last 3 days, I broke off with my buddies, flew back to Santa Marta, rented a car, and went back to Palamino to pick her up.”

“One of the guys had kept her safe for me – even brought her back to his house – which was super cool, because in the meantime apparently there was one or two different people who wanted her, so I'm glad I tipped them or bribed them or whatever you want to call it.

Because there was one guy who was relatively normal, but one guy who was sketchy who was just trying to take her, and they were like “whoa, whoa, that's our cat.”

So I picked her up and began the process of flying from Palamino, to Bogata, to Texas, and then Vancouver.”


“The major thing I had to do along the way was get a rabies vaccine and a certificate of health from a veterinarian. I'd figured out the airline, and made sure she had a ticket – which was a cheaper human ticket – and got a carrying case and some food. And I checked in with my veterinarian in Vancouver to make sure she was getting the right care and figuring out what we'd do once I got back. She arrived and, besides an unrelated ringworm infection, she was in good health.”

“The last part of the whole thing was introducing Luca to my two other cats. It took about 7 or 10 days of keeping her in my bathroom, socializing her slowly. I did that by scent-swapping – so you get a little sock, wipe the glands on each cat's cheek, and then exchange the socks and get them used to each others' smells – and then by introducing them through the door. There was a fair bit of hissing at first but now they're fine.

Luca has a lot of energy, she's still a little baby. She's probably 10-months old now. She's still a little terror, like big time. She's an indoor cat now but she seems really happy. I'd like to get a place with a backyard in the next few years and she'd be happy with that I'm sure.

They all get along now. I initially had one nice cat and one very kind of bitchy cat, so it's just kind of funny throwing her in the mix because she's quite energetic, so she's terrorizing the other two. I think she'll chill out a fair bit after age 1, but otherwise she's pretty great and super healthy now.”

“Her roots as a stray still show. She's a scavenger by nature. I feed her plenty of food, but she's just a scavenger – it's ingrained in her. So every morning and night when I feed the cats, I can't feed her with the others because she'll just go steal their food. She's stealing the other cats' food non-stop, and I'm like “you have your own food! You have as much food as they do and more!”

I eventually learned I have to feed her in a separate room. She eats in the bedroom with the door closed while the others eat their food, and that just works better for everybody.

She's also super fascinated by water, I don't know why – if it's the pool she grew up in – but it's quite funny. Things that my regular domesticated cats from the lower mainland are not used to are like running water, vacuums, blenders – they're just like “whoa, these are scary”. But for Luca, she came from a place where they were always blending margaritas, where there's an outdoor shower and people are always cleaning. So the vacuum, the blender, the running water... she doesn't care at all, she's just like “Okay, that's normal. That's normal life.” And in the last few months she's become extremely fascinated with water, more than ever.”

“So, in the end, the amount of work was extraordinary, and it was a lot of money as well, but, as they say, “if it's true love...”


Luca lives in the Yaletown area of Vancouver, BC with her owner Jeffrey McLean.