People

Not purr-fect to have little money in kitty

Ms Vijakumar with Hairyfatty, a foster kitty placed by CWS. Its efforts to educate owners and promote sterilisation have changed more than one feline's life.
Ms Vijakumar with Hairyfatty, a foster kitty placed by CWS. Its efforts to educate owners and promote sterilisation have changed more than one feline's life.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Cat Welfare Society president hopes to overturn ban on cats in HDB flats

When she first tried helping out at a cat adoption drive, it was "three hours of hell" .

Mucus was dripping from her nose. Her eyes were tearing.

She even had difficulty breathing.

Apparently, she was allergic to cats. Even so, she soldiered on, making feline issues her pet cause.

Now, as president of the Cat Welfare Society (CWS), Ms Thenuga Vijakumar helms the charity's operations which focus mainly on sterilisation, mediation and education.

NO BLANKET BAN, PLEASE

Just because there is one irresponsible dog owner, it doesn't mean all dogs should be banned, and that's exactly what we're saying about cat ownership.

MS THENUGA VIJAKUMAR, president of the Cat Welfare Society.

The 31-year-old lawyer, who did not have pets as a child but now owns a dog, became an accidental cat activist about six years ago.

Growing up at her family home in Teacher's Estate, off Yio Chu Kang Road, she had paid little heed to the community cats. Then, a neighbour who had fed them moved away, and all but one of the cats vanished.

She said: "There were two litters of kittens but they disappeared. I thought it was strange and maybe I could do something. I learnt the cat could be neutered so I became its feeder and got it into a carrier."

Through the CWS Facebook page, she found a panel of veterinary clinics that offered subsidised rates for cat spaying, and decided to volunteer for her first event.

It was at the adoption drive that she discovered her allergy to cats.Thankfully, the condition has since improved. Now, she has reactions to specific cats only.

Six months after the adoption drive, while on a break from a law degree course at Singapore Management University, she volunteered at a CWS flea market. "There, I heard they needed help to clean a house in Tampines with over 50 cats so I thought I'd help," she said.

This experience led to her becoming a regular volunteer, and later, taking on the challenge of leading Singapore's main cat welfare group.

"It was shocking - you walk in and the first thing you see is filth. There were cockroaches everywhere. The family had fallen through the cracks.

"I don't think they wanted to be irresponsible owners. If they had no means to sterilise the first few cats, of course, the number was going to spiral and turn into 50."

She added: "The experience made me feel like I could actually make a difference in people's lives. That's why I stuck with it."

Former CWS president Veron Lau said: "When I first met Thenuga, she was young, about 24, but she was dedicated and methodical in her thinking."

She handed the reins over to Ms Vijakumar in 2014.

One of Ms Vijakumar's proudest achievements is a scheme started in 2015 for low-income cat owners to get free sterilisations. It has benefited more than 1,200 cats so far.

CWS has also expanded beyond its original role of sterilisation and reducing culling rates to become a "central node" for cat issues, working with town councils and other authorities to facilitate matters relating to abuse and other complaints.

But with just two staff members to handle mediation, its resources are thin.

Even though there has been some relief with the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) putting up half the money for stray-cat sterilisations under a joint programme since 2014, getting funding remains a constant source of stress.

In 2015, CWS nearly had to cease operations after funds dried up amid increasing demands.

"My greatest concern is that there are more demands on CWS to respond to problems, but with what money?" said Ms Vijakumar.

One of the group's long-term goals is to overturn the ban on cats in Housing Board flats, which has been in place since HDB's inception in 1960.

Some progress has been made - a pilot project for residents in Chong Pang to keep their feline companions in their flats was launched in 2012. Talks on funding to extend the scheme to two more precincts are ongoing.

Meanwhile, CWS has created a handbook for dealing with animal-related issues, to be distributed to AVA and town council officers later this year as part of a plan to formalise mediation efforts.

Given that thousands of cats already live in flats, legitimising their ownership will allow for better education and enforcement against errant owners, noted Ms Vijakumar.

"Just because there is one irresponsible dog owner, it doesn't mean all dogs should be banned, and that's exactly what we're saying about cat ownership," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'Not purr-fect to have little money in kitty'. Print Edition | Subscribe