Singapore’s cat feeder conundrum: To feed or not to feed?

Michelle Wee started feeding cats 20 years ago, after she saw one abused. It takes Michelle, a former office administrator now retired, six hours a day in three different shifts to feed 30 cats in three different parts of Redhill.

Michelle might just fit the stereotype of a Singaporean cat feeder: a slightly eccentric, single, middle-aged woman. She beckons her cats in the car park of Delta Sports Complex with a series of shrill miaow calls, and is not shy of approaching passers-by to ask them for money for cat food.

Feeding cats costs Michelle $300 a month, she says, adding that Cat Welfare Society (CWS) — a not-for-profit profit group founded in 1999 — has not met her requests for help with food bills. She thinks the fact that she lives in a condo puts people off giving her donations, but she has no income and depends on her sister. She also lives with her elderly father.

Michelle and her cats. Photo: Robin Hicks

She asks a lady passing by the entrance to the swimming pool for cat food money. The lady, looking mildly alarmed, apologises repeatedly and walks off, her two children shuffling behind her.

“Whenever I go [to feed the cats], I ask people for donations. But most of them, they don’t. They say sorry, sorry. Very few, very few [give her money],” she says, describing exactly what had just happened as the norm. She says that once an acquaintance, a Malay lady, created a web page for her (Michelle does not own a computer) to appeal for donations, but it did not raise a cent.

“Some people I ask say they have spent their money on 4D,” she says, referring to the Singapore Pools betting game.

Before an interview with Coconuts Singapore by the swimming pool at her condo, Michelle laid out a handful of invoices for cat food purchases to show much she spends on feeding. One bill is for $172, the rest, covering many months, are for similar amounts. She hopes this article will prompt people to help her with donations for food and vet bills.

One of Michelle’s many receipts for assorted cat food. 

Michelle’s predilection for feeding animals almost cost her $500 a few years ago, after the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) caught her dropping food for crows, a pest species in Singapore which, like cats, are culled. But she appealed, on account of her suffering from cancer, and the fine was withdrawn.

Michelle possesses a common quality among cat feeders: a genuine passion for what she does. Her eyes glow when she talks about cats.

“I love dogs as well,” she says. “I’ve fed three dogs, but they’ve all passed away. I feed cats now. If there were dogs, I’d feed them too. But there aren’t so many around now.”

She is fatalistic about the future of the 30 population she feeds, since most have been sterilised. “When they’re gone, they’re gone. But when they go, they will go to heaven. Jesus loves them too,” she says.

Like Michelle, Cindy — who feeds 10 cats in a quiet oasis in the heart of the city — has met with resistance. A public resting area in Ann Siang Hill Park where Cindy feeds and grooms cats is notable not only for its shaded, leafy beauty, but also for three large signs that read: “No feeding of strays”.

The signs were put up a few weeks ago by the National Parks Board after complaints Cindy suspects came from members of a new gym that recently opened up on the same street.

She thinks the complaint must be about cat faeces, because she is careful to avoid cause for complaint over what is the most common gripe about cat feeders: they do not clear up after themselves.

The only visible evidence that any cats live in the area (they were completely invisible until Cindy materialised to meet Coconuts Singapore at dusk) are two plastic bowls of water she leaves out for them. “It gets so hot here. I have to leave them water,” she says.

What will she do if NParks shows up to stop her from feeding her cats? Cindy says she will speak Chinese, say she does not understand what is written on the sign, and point out that the animal on the sign is in fact a dog, not a cat.

It is hard to argue that someone like Cindy, who drives from where she lives in Punggol to near where she works in the city centre, and spends 80 bucks a week and an hour of her time every day to care for another animal, is doing much wrong. Besides pride in what she does, she cares for cats out of compassion and is prepared to live with the consequences.

Cindy cleaning one of the community cats of the park. Photo: Robin Hicks

So is a security guard at Pearl Bank Apartments in Chinatown, who could lose his job if he is caught, but does so because “if I don’t, who will?” he told your correspondent, who lives there.

Cindy did not disagree with the idea that the many women who care for cats do so out of a maternal instinct. Her mother fed cats too. There is a tendency for fewer male cat feeders in Singapore because “guys find it embarrassing,” she suggests. “They’re seen as sissies.”

But most people, like Cindy and the security guard at Pearl Bank, who throws food for a small group of very wild cats from the front of the building when no one is looking, feed cats because they are “pitiful,” she says. “Like homeless people.”

Cindy preparing to feed the cats right in front of the ‘No Feeding of Strays’ sign

“I worry about them when I can’t be with them,” Cindy says. “When it rains, I worry. Where will they go for shelter?” she says, pointing out that one of her cats can no longer hide in drains because she is too fat. She started feeding cats after one stray she fed died of a kidney disease, a common ailment among wild-living felines.

The mess sometimes left from feeding cats can attract another source of local paranoia: rats. CWS points to guidelines for responsible feeding, ratified by the AVA, where feeders are given a two-hour window to clean up. If they haven’t cleaned up within that time, feeding is considered littering.

Others point at the diseases that cats can carry as a justifiable reason for them not being around, or at least in smaller numbers in neighbourhood areas.

Coconuts Singapore spoke to two doctors for their views on the health risks posed by stray cats in Singapore. One of them notes that stray cats are “bad news for hygiene reasons” and pose a risk of passing diseases on to people. The big one, he says, is toxoplasmosis, which can be passed on through cat faeces. There’s also Rickettsia felis, or the cat-flea virus, although that is rarely found in Singapore, and Bartonella henselau, a cat-scratch disease.

Cats crawl in and out of drains, exposing themselves to a host of bacteria and bugs, suggests the doctor. “Do you see dogs do that?” he says, suggesting that stray canines pose less of a health risk than felines. “There is still wildness in cats. Strays do not interact with humans other than those that feed them. They can turn around and scratch you.”

Another doctor suggested basically the opposite. The risk of infection passing from cat to person is very low, and the only people for whom toxoplasmosis can be a serious problem are pregnant mothers and people with weak immune systems, and they’re very unlikely to be hanging around where cats do their business.

Even some animal lovers argue that stray cats may pose a health risk, if not to people to Singapore’s wildlife. But most strays that are fed are not inclined to hunt much, says Cindy, who has never seen any of her cats prey on a wild animal.

Millie from NTU enjoys a scratch or two. Photo: NTUCMN

On the Nanyang Technological University campus, which is defined as a mature trap-neuter-release-manage estate, cats are older, ranging from 10-17 years old. They are “fairly laid back” and only four of the 30 hunt, and mostly rats. “Feeding them doesn’t take away the instinct to hunt. We generally don’t think wildlife is threatened as they inhabit a distance from the forest,” says Ng Yi Shu, volunteer at Love Kuching Project and president of the NTU Cat Management Network.

While even the most passionate feeder recognises the need to manage cat numbers in Singapore, how that is done is a point of contention.

AVA co-runs the stray cat sterilisation program with CWS and SPCA that has successfully brought cat numbers down. But cats are still culled in their hundreds every year, both strays and abandoned pets. Some are impounded and then put down if there is no one to pay for their release. Others living on industrial sites and outlying areas of the island where there are larger colonies are culled outright, CWS says.

NTUCMN volunteers Yeo Bowen, 24, and Ng Yi Shu, 22, poses for a shot with Sally, a campus cat. Both Yeo and Ng are seniors in the campus group, having volunteered since matriculation. Photo: Cepheus Chan

Culling does not make the problem go away, according to the “vacuum theory” popular among pro-cat groups. It just makes way for other strays to move into their vacated territory.

In response to our question about the reasons for culling, AVA insists that it does not actively round up stray cats, and points to the sterilisation programme as an example of how it manages the population in housing development board estates. The government authority is also keen to highlight how much is spent on the programme.

In a statement, AVA says: “Under the Stray Cat Sterilisation Programme, stray cats are sterilised and returned to the neighbourhood where they are responsibly managed by caregivers. AVA subsidises 50 per cent of the sterilisation costs up to a cap of $30 for male cats and $60 for female cats. The cats are also microchipped, with the costs borne by AVA.”

Though the cat impoundment rate has fallen to about a thousand animals last year from a high of 6,500 five years ago and 14,000 in 2004, AVA still operates a free trap loan service where trapped cats are picked up for impoundment, which usually means the end of the road for the cat.

A sterilized stray cat, marked by its clipped ear. Photo: CWS Facebook page

Cat trapping in Tampines last year prompted one cat lover to raise a petition to protest against a practice she called a “holocaust” that she described as “inhumane, ill-informed and autocratic”. It wasn’t the first time Tampines Town Council has put the squeeze on its outdoor cat population, using large nets and paying cleaners to kill cats some years ago, she complained. “The anti-cat stance harks back to medieval Europe’s prosecution of cats, which were branded as heretical due to their role in pagan worship,” she wrote.

CWS tells Coconuts Singapore: “We have urged that this [trap service] be replaced by alternatives and have successfully mediated and implemented humane solutions at condos, malls, warehouses and government buildings. The problem we face however is that while people generally prefer a more humane solution without loss of life, no one wants to pay for it and the Society can pick up cases as much as our donations allow.”

“We believe providing humane solutions must be a shared responsibility, something that the government must invest in instead of paying only for impoundment and culling solutions,” the charity says.

Yeo, a Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering student at NTU, takes care of Millie. Photo: Cepheus Chan

Rather than leave food out for cats, why not find homes for them and remove any chance of the social friction that can come from wild-living cats, feeder critics say. Why don’t feeders take them off the streets and into their homes?

“Most feeders will tell you they wish there are less cats to feed,” says CWS. “They also wish that some of their cats will find good homes. But it’s not realistic to expect all cats to get adopted and find homes.”

Sterilisation has resulted in a halving of Singapore’s stray cat population in the last 15 years. But more needs to be done to tackle home breeding and abandonment so that progress made is not undone, CWS says. Most abandoned cats are unable to fend for themselves, starve or are run over.

Shirley Tay, who’s been feeding cats in the east of Singapore for 12 years, and gave up her job five years ago so she could care for them full time, would not reveal the exact location of where she feeds for fear people reading this article will dump unwanted cats at her site, or that the cats in her cluster would be “relocated”.

Greyie, who was found badly injured at Northland Primary School in Yishun. It survived abuse, but its hind legs are now paralysed. Photo: CWS Facebook page

Walter Lionel George, author of A Bed of Roses, wrote that cats “know how to obtain food without labour, shelter without confinement, and love without penalties.” It’s hard to see how these words ring true of the Singapore context. Some of the cats killed in Yishun were believed to have been lured with the promise of affection their feeders give them.

Michelle, while stooped to lay out food for a black tom, stumbles upon an inherent risk in getting too close to the animals she looks out for. “It’s sometimes better for the cats to not be too friendly to people, so no harm can come to them.”

Nachos from NTU – one of the popular hall cats. Photo: NTUCMN

Read: Part 1 of our investigative article about Singapore’s troubled relationship with stray cats.

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