In a villa outside Athens, there's a resort where about 50 pampered guests relax and socialize, eat communal meals, frolic on recreational equipment, bask on sun-washed balconies overlooking olive groves and mountains, and get spayed or neutered.

The guests are stray cats, rounded up from Greek city streets, and housed, fed and sterilized through an education and rescue program. This spring, some Minnesota veterinary students are serving as interns in the program, Let's be S.M.A.R.T. (an acronym for Successfully Managing Animal Rights Today).

The captured feral cats live comfortably at the resort — OK, so it's more of a shelter — but they aren't caged; they roam freely throughout the house, playing, relaxing or watching cat videos on YouTube. They receive medical care as needed, in addition to sterilization, then are put up for adoption or released back onto the streets, hopefully for a better life than they had before.

In addition to the 50 cats at the villa, another 30 stay in a smaller foster home nearby as they wait to be sent to their adoptive families.

Ashley Walker, a student at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, spent a couple of weeks earlier this year on the internship, helping with surgical procedures and other veterinary tasks. The 29-year-old native of Peru, Ill., now living in St. Paul, is one of five U vet students who are taking part in the partnership program with Let's be S.M.A.R.T.; the others will go to Greece in May.

As a fourth-year student set to graduate this spring, Walker has surgical experience and was able to perform five neuters and four spays during her visit. She also performed vaccinations, implanted microchips and otherwise prepared cats to be adopted.

Interns at earlier stages of their education might spend time observing veterinarians, assisting with medication or monitoring patients. Volunteers from around the world also stay at the shelter and perform non-medical duties such as scooping litter boxes, feeding the cats and cleaning the villa floor to ceiling daily.

Walker stayed among the cats at the posh country villa. "I actually had my own bedroom, with a few roommates — felines, of course."

Cats everywhere

Athens, like other European cities, has a lot of feral cats wandering around, Walker said.

"I'm probably a little biased, because I look for them, but you don't have to look very hard and you'll see them — in restaurants that have outdoor patios, in [public spaces near] apartments, where people will regularly feed them," she said.

"The majority of [the] ones I saw were fairly well cared for. Some are dirty, some need medical attention, but in general, for a feral population, most looked good."

Contrary to widespread belief, some feral cats get along well with humans. Kittens that spend time around people when they're between 4 and 12 weeks of age learn to be friendly, Walker said. Even some older feral cats can gradually get used to human company.

But after that early window, many never become comfortable with people. So after being sterilized and receiving other needed treatment, they return to their feral lives on the streets, Walker said. It might seem callous, but "is keeping them in a home, seeing people every day — [an arrangement] that's terrifying to them — really in their best interest?"

Walker plans to focus on feline veterinary medicine, a relatively new specialty. Historically, cats have not been perceived as family pets for as long as dogs have, she said. They were long considered working animals — distant and aloof, unlike cuddly dogs — whose job it was to keep barns and houses mouse-free. Even now, cats don't always get the same treatment as canines.

"In most general [veterinary] practices, cats don't get as much attention or have their needs specifically met as well as most dogs," Walker said. At clinics, surrounded by the smell of dogs, "cats are notoriously more anxious and naughty ... some of them will barely let you touch them."

Walker grew up in a family with 17 cats. Now she lives with just one, Merlin. In the middle of an interview, she paused to rescue a mouse Merlin had caught in her St. Paul apartment.

Giving strays healthier lives

There are about 100 million stray cats and dogs in Europe, according to the European Society of Dog and Animal Welfare. The majority live in southern countries, where mild climates allow them to survive outdoors year-round.

Tourism websites often portray the cats wandering the streets as a charming feature of those travel destinations. But feral animals don't necessarily live healthy lives, said Julie Kelley, founder of Let's be S.M.A.R.T.

Residents "are just used to them being on the streets and there will be some people feeding them," she said. "It might be a little barbaric; some people just throw them cat food or half-eaten human food. When animals are sick — inbred, not cared-for properly — [residents] think the government is going to come in and fix everything, which is not the case."

The cats are rarely taken in to be sterilized — in fact, some people oppose sterilization as unnatural, she said.

Born from a love of animals

Years ago, Kelley, who now co-owns a construction business in New York, sold an accounting business to Greek buyers. She began traveling to Greece in 1998, moved there in 2005 and started Let's be S.M.A.R.T., a donation-supported nonprofit, a year or so later.

"I always loved animals, I grew up with animals, so I was like, one day I'm going to move here and I'm going to save the strays," she said.

Let's be S.M.A.R.T. began as an educational program. Kelley made presentations in schools and was surprised to learn how many people "had no idea how great animals were for people, all the benefits around caring for them, sterilizing them."

The rescue part of the program began in 2011. The organization also sets up feeding areas for strays and shows residents how to feed them in a healthy way. If provided a clean eating place in a condominium building, for example, sterilized cats can keep the building free of mice and cockroaches.

The internship program offers students opportunities to share information and learn how other cultures deal with veterinary issues, Kelley said.

"I just think that our main model being 'think globally and act locally' brings the world together a little bit more," she said.

For Walker, the internship was a good experience.

"Working in another country not only gives you appreciation for what you have, but seeing what you have in common. We all care about pets and want to do our best for them," she said.

"It's just very special. Something I'll definitely not forget."