Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen, National Geographic
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Borre, left, a nine-year-old male, enjoys the sun on the Catboat's deck while Kasumi, right, a 10-year-old female, looks out the window.

Photograph by Muhammed Muheisen, National Geographic

Welcome to the Catboat, the World’s Only Floating Animal Sanctuary

Started in the 1960s by a local animal lover, the Catboat is a tourist attraction that still bobs in Amsterdam’s canals.

Amsterdam’s canals are dotted with boats of all shapes and sizes, but one vessel stands out in particular: The Catboat.

De Poezenboot, which is Dutch for “the Catboat,” is the world’s only floating animal sanctuary. It hosts around 50 stray and abandoned cats, 17 of which are permanent residents that have lived on the boat for several years. (Watch: “Look Inside Taiwan’s ‘Cat Village’”)

“Cats keep coming and going,” says Muhammed Muheisen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who traveled to the Dutch capital in 2018 to spend a week on the Catboat. Most of the cats are tabbies and street cats, but one Persian cat gets a lot of attention, Muheisen says.

“She’s like the most popular cat on the boat. She has this beautiful hair,” he says. “She’s one of the moody, funny characters.” (Related: “Surprising Things You Never Knew About Your Cat”)

The enterprise started in 1966 when Henriette van Weelde, known locally as the “cat lady,” began taking in abandoned cats on an old sailing barge she had modified with a cat-friendly interior.

“Her husband passed away and she needed some love,” says Muheisen.

The sailing barge was replaced and renovated multiple times in the coming decades, and most recently iterated as a houseboat in 1979. The Catboat Foundation became an official nonprofit in June 1987, and by 2001 the boat was renovated again to meet the Netherlands’ legal requirements of an animal sanctuary.

For instance, the boat is carefully reinforced with wooden slats and wire to prevent any cats from escaping into the water. (Related: “Vintage Photos of Pampered Cats”)

A Passion for Cats

Van Weelde died at 90 in 2005, but her feline legacy lives on.

Today, donations and volunteers fuel the Catboat, and the money goes to pay for new residents to be neutered, spayed, and implanted with traceable microchips. Muheisen says there are around 20 to 25 volunteers, ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, who visit the boat regularly to care for the cats. (Related: “Why You’re Probably Training Your Cat All Wrong”)

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Yoni Caspers, 30, heads home with Mow, a seven-year-old male she adopted from the Catboat.

“They all, of course, love cats, and they communicate with the tourists who come in,” Muheisen says. “They are very friendly and very protective of the cats.”

The adoption process for Catboat felines is thorough. The boat sees thousands of visitors each year, most of whom are tourists, and they must make an appointment to see a certain cat.

Afterward, prospective owners have to wait a day to think the adoption over before they can continue with the procedure. If an adopter ends up not wanting the cat, they can take it back.

Muheisen says one of the things that drove him to photograph the unusual sanctuary is his passion for cats.

“Day after day, you become part of their environment. You’re just another big cat for them,” Muheisen adds. “It’s one of the most beautiful assignments that I did.”

Follow Muhammed Muheisen on Instagram.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Muheisen traveled to Amsterdam to photograph the Catboat in 2017; he heard about the boat in 2017 and visited it in 2018.