Cat lover Jessica Seet claws her way back

Ms Jessica Seet founded The Lion City Kitty – The Cat Museum, Muses & Mansion – the world’s first cat museum with live animals.
Ms Jessica Seet founded The Lion City Kitty – The Cat Museum, Muses & Mansion – the world’s first cat museum with live animals.PHOTO: ST FILE

Despite being forced to downsize the cat museum she founded, and losing her home too, Jessica Seet is determined to keep sharing her love of felines

8Q

Former radio broadcaster Jessica Seet, 51, has been having a rough time.

The emotional stress and toll of recent events upon her are evident - she sheds tears during this interview with The Straits Times.

Her mood of late could not be in starker contrast to that in January 2015, when she founded the world's first cat museum with live animals here.

Called The Lion City Kitty - The Cat Museum, Muses & Mansion, the social enterprise located in a shophouse at 8 Purvis Street opened with pomp, with its official opening graced by Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.

For more than two years, the volunteer-run museum thrived. But some time this year, Ms Seet found herself embroiled in a situation with government-run agencies.

The trouble began after a complaint was lodged by a member of the public, who had sent in a photo of people playing with cats in Ms Seet's home, located a floor above the cat museum.

"People come to the museum to learn more about cats and they are then invited to my home to play with them. What is so wrong about that?" she asks.

The museum occupies the second floor, with her being a tenant of the second to fifth storeys of the building. The third to fifth storeys were previously registered as her residence.

The complaint resulted in an inspection of the premises by government officials, who told her that her usage of the third storey as a cat shelter and adoption centre - which she viewed as part of her residence - was unauthorised.

Her landlord subsequently also decided not to renew her lease for the fourth-storey unit.

So she had to move out of the two affected floors. Because the fourth storey was linked to the fifth storey, she vacated that as well. Cats had to be shuffled to the second floor and the cat nursery had to be shut down as a result.

The museum continues to occupy the second floor at 8 Purvis Street - until June next year.

Ms Seet, who also owns vocal-training company Art of Voice, says: "My home had to go. This entire situation has saddened me a lot. It's not about me, but it's the cruel and unkind way that people and animals have been treated.

"My conscience is clear and I know I tried to do everything above board. But what's done is done. We have to move on."

She now lives in an apartment a few streets away from the museum.

The museum, which has welcomed more than 50,000 visitors from Singapore and abroad, and which has helped to house more than 300 cats, is searching for a new home.

Ms Seet, who is single, says: "Until then, I'll just keep doing what I can. Sharing love and saving lives."

1 Why did you decide to set up this museum?

I saw, first-hand, the change that people go through when they have their first interaction with a cat. They stop being shy and start to come out of their shell. It's a very beautiful thing.

But I didn't want to start a cat cafe because I wanted to do something different and that was not-for-profit. In 2011, I went to the Teddy Bear Museum on South Korea's Jeju Island and was inspired to start a museum with cats.

2 Did you grow up a cat lover?

I grew up with dogs and used to be terrified of cats because of their claws.

I became a cat lover only at the age of 38. This happened after I was given my first cat, Braddie, for Christmas. The exotic shorthair was then a kitten and is now 14 years old. I fell in love with his silliness and his ridiculously cute cheeks, and the rest is history.

3 How many cats do you own?

I had nine when I began the museum, but I have 20 now.

My most recent adoptions are the odd-eyed cats. They have heterochromia iridium, a condition where they each have two different-coloured eyes.

4 Do you personally fund the museum?

Yes. I spent about $300,000 of my savings to set up the museum.

Each month, I top up thousands of dollars for rental, maintenance, utilities, cat supplies and to pay for vet visits.

I know of other groups who run catteries in their homes and fosterers who collect adoption fees that go directly into their personal bank accounts, but not a cent of the money the museum receives goes into my bank account.

5 What did the relocation experience involve?

It was challenging. It took close to 150 volunteers two weeks to complete the move. We had to remove artwork, scrub floors, stairs, toilets, remove lighting, patch and paint walls.

We had to pay contractors to dismantle and re-install CCTV cameras, air-conditioners, fans, doors, grilles, and build new partitions.

All this was done while maintaining the day-to-day care of all the cats on our premises.

6 How are the cats and humans coping since the move?

The animals have suffered the most. They have had to adapt to the move, renovation noise and a much smaller space.

Our feline receptionist Channing Tatum collapsed from the stress of the move and had to be hospitalised for about 10 days. Another cat also needed surgery from stress-induced over-grooming.

For me and my volunteers, we've always tried to share our love, knowledge and understanding of cats with others. This passion has not changed.

I am exhausted and disappointed after what has happened, but I feel an urgency to do even more now.

7 What are your takeaways from this recent setback?

My takeaway is that in times of crisis, "the power of the people is stronger than the people in power" - that is a quote by Internet activist and computer engineer Wael Ghonim.

Many people have come forward to show their support in the form of donations and by giving their time and expertise, although I have also lost some support as a result.

It has not been easy, but these people give me the strength to push on.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

I don't need to be remembered. I would like to leave behind an infrastructure - perhaps by setting up a charity - that will offer better education and training in responsible pet parenthood.

We are fund-raising for a new cat nursery. If anyone is keen to help, they can go to give.asia/story/save_the_orphan_baby_kittens

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 20, 2017, with the headline 'Cat lover claws her way back'. Print Edition | Subscribe