Singapore's Community Cats
With a population density of nearly 8000 people per square kilometer in Singapore (compared with around 350 in Japan), there doesn’t seem to be enough space for people, let alone pets. Any stroll through the orderly and beautiful suburbs will tell you that’s really not the case. High rise apartments make for comfortable living in less space on the ground, leaving plenty left over for lush green areas and wide sidewalks down which people can always be seen walking dogs. A closer look behind some of the lovely flowering bushes, can be even more revealing. As elsewhere in the world, pet guardianship has unfortunately led to a population of homeless cats (and a smaller number of dogs), along with their unwanted offspring trying to survive on the Singapore streets. The good news is that there seems to be a continued increase in the number of people receptive to humane strategies, which along with a dedicated army of volunteers, has in turn brought about positive change. Veron Lau of the Cat Welfare Society in Singapore says welfare issues for cats have improved dramatically since the 90’s with the number of strays decreasing from around 150,000 to 50,000. This seems largely due to ongoing efforts by CWS and other groups to promote, fund, and carry out sterilization projects.
Every year CWS helps to fund the sterilization of around 4000 cats, spaying and neutering nearly 5,000 in the last year alone. CWS is not a rescue group, but instead focuses on platforms which benefit everyone. Along with providing free sterilization slots, the group organizes adoption drives, and helps with trapping. They also assist with mediation between members of the community helping cats and those opposed to these efforts. They have a number of education campaigns promoting better understanding and implementation of responsible pet care standards. And, they help to advocate on important issues, such as recently pushing to end the ban on cats kept as pets set into place by the Housing and Development Board.
Cats living as strays in Singapore face many of the usual dangerous aspects of life on the streets, and lots of caretakers regularly do all they can to keep these dangers at bay. I spent several hours following one of the amazing people feeding and caring for colonies of sterilized strays living near a number of different housing complexes and a factory in one area. Most cats appeared healthy and well fed, but I heard about one cat who had recently been found stabbed with a knife. The cat, a pretty calico named Lala, luckily recovered and was now back waiting for her supper. I heard about another who had not been so lucky. At least in this other case, the offender was caught and punished. The government actively pursues reports of animal cruelty, and the restructuring of the animal crime unit has led to a big reduction in cases like these. As we walked from place to place, I could see the concern on the caretaker’s face as she counted the cats (calling each by name) and searched for those who did not immediately show up. She quickly administered pills to cats with health issues, and gently medicated one who had a new wound on his neck. This concern, and the awareness that friendly cats tend to be most at risk, has led individual colony managers in Singapore to seek out alternatives to leaving homeless cats on the streets.
The need for shelter space by individuals and small organizations has led to boarding establishments offering rental enclosures for group housing. I visited 2 such boarding and rental-sheltering facilities, which many rescuers and even the CWS (due to a particularly difficult hoarding case) use to house homeless cats. For a monthly fee, these places provide kennel space, cleaning, and basic feeding services to rescuers, along with more elaborate and expensive temporary boarding services for guardians. The caretaker I met took me to see her rescued cats being kept at Mutts and Mittens. The cat areas are mostly wire enclosed kennels with easily maintained polished concrete floors, and minimal shelving for enrichment. The cats were very happy to see us, and I was instructed to take two out on harnesses and leads for a walk, which ended up being more of a drop and roll in the grass. All cats are up to date on vaccines and are previously tested for contagious diseases (there are special segregated areas for positive testers or otherwise health impaired). Volunteers are welcome, and after spending a pleasant afternoon cuddling cats, I cannot recommend it more!
There were a number of other visitors coming to see dogs being kept in the boarding area, which includes a nice swimming pool. But, I only saw one other cat rescuer visiting during the hour or so we spent tending to the caretaker’s cats. While adoption seems to be the theoretical goal, and there is a special room for adoptable cats near the lobby area of the facility, the visiting rescuer I spoke with expressed distrust in a public who had already failed her rescues once. The thought of these cats somehow ending up back on the streets was more than she could bear, and she told me that it had been difficult for her to feel positive about finding responsible homes. She said this while stroking an absolutely beautiful and friendly Siamese cat, who I imagined might otherwise easily find an adoptive home. That opinion aside, the CWS website regularly helps find many homes for rescued cats, and offers excellent information regarding good screening policies.
The few cats CWS currently has in shelter are kept at Kittycare Haven, the other boarding facility I visited. Rental enclosures there cost around $1,000 per month, for what looks to be a 2 X 5 meter space. This facility seemed more isolated, and the only person I saw on site during our quick visit was a person mopping floors. Though the kennels were certainly clean and the cats looked well kept, I found it a bit heartbreaking walking down an aisle where little paws reached out through wire mesh, trying to grab for attention. I was told about a welfare tour recently organized by CWS, in which members could visit cats kept at the rental facility, cats being cared for on the street, and 100 cats being cared for in someone’s home. At the end of the day they were asked where they thought cats seemed most happy. It was no surprise to hear that cats living on the streets were those who participants thought had the best lives.
Streets which many members of the public still feel should not be shared with any stray and abandoned cats at all--a fact which continuously puts these cats at risk. CWS works closely with the government, providing a regular response to cat welfare related complaints and concerns. But, these efforts only bandage a deeper wound which is the troubled human and animal relationship the world over. In the next year, CWS hopes to increasingly transition more of the problem solving and mediation over to government venues, reducing the organization’s involvement to training rather than managing humane solution deployment. This could better allow CWS to focus on and expand their targeted education and advocacy work which will have a much greater impact overall.
They are certainly on an encouraging path. One of the fascinating and positive aspects of everyone I met helping cats in Singapore was their matter of fact approach to doing so. I asked one community cat caregiver if she was at all embarrassed about public scrutiny while going out regularly to feed the cats, as many of the caregivers I have met elsewhere seem to be. She asked me why anyone would be embarrassed to be seen doing kind and responsible work. Exactly. With an abundance of positive attitudes like this, things can only get better and better. Cats like the elderly Aga, who now waits for her chance at retirement from life on the streets, might find themselves never having to see the outside of a home with people who understand and enjoy the mutual benefits of having a pet. For the time being, volunteers will continue tending to Singapore’s quiet street dwellers, and groups like the Cat Welfare Society will effectively support their kind work.