Thara Jeyaraman has plenty of mouths to feed. Around 60, to be exact.
The 50-year-old Singaporean has fostered animals since 2003 and provides twice-daily meals to dozens of community cats in the city-state.
As a registered animal caregiver, she works to sterilize and neuter strays, boarding them in her own home before releasing them back to the housing estates from where they were picked up.
At any one time, there are about 20 cats lodging in her five-room unit. Technically, though, the presence of even a single cat in her home runs afoul of the law.
More than 80% of Singapore’s population live in public housing units, or Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, which have long prohibited keeping cats as pets. According to regulations, residents are permitted to own a dog provided that it belongs to one of 62 HDB-approved breeds.
A variety of small animals from hamsters and guinea pigs to turtles, tree frogs, birds and even chinchillas are permitted as long as they are legally imported. Felines of any breed, however, are not.
“Cats are not allowed in flats. They are generally difficult to contain within the flat,” reads a disclaimer on the HDB’s website. “When allowed to roam indiscriminately, they tend to shed fur and defecate or urinate in public areas, and also make caterwauling sounds, which can inconvenience your neighbors.”
In practice, though, the HDB rarely enforces its ban on cat ownership and flat-dwellers across Singapore keep pet cats at home without much fuss.
“Usually, if the cat is kept within the confines of your house, there is no issue,” said Jeyaraman. “The problem only starts when you allow your cats to roam beyond your door.”
Animal welfare groups have kept up calls for rescinding the cat ban, which they claim is not based on reasonable arguments and represents a double standard. Pet owners and activists hope the ban will be replaced with a regulatory regime that would make sterilization, microchipping and registration mandatory for cats, similar to the rules in place for dogs.
Cat abandonment cases are reportedly on the rise in Singapore and advocates say microchipping is the most effective way to make ownership traceable and strengthen accountability.
But some cat owners living in HDB flats are said to be hesitant to microchip and register their animals for fear of being served a rehoming notice calling on them to remove their pets from the premises.
“Our community cats are microchipped when sterilized under the Stray Cat Sterilization Program which makes them traceable to specific areas. We do not have a similar level of accountability for pet cats,” said Thenuga Vijakumar, president of the Cat Welfare Society (CWS), an advocacy group that works with authorities as a third-party mediator for cat-related issues.
“Microchipping and registration of pet cats is necessary for accountability and to ensure cat owners are responsible, but this will require cat owners to provide their home addresses, which is a deterrent in itself,” she told Asia Times.
This year has seen a record high of cat abandonment cases according to CWS’ latest annual report, which described the uptick as a consequence of the group axing its own low-cost sterilization scheme due to a lack of funds. The group had sterilized over 1,000 cats from low-income homes to help tackle overpopulation and reduce rates of abandonment.
Vijakumar said abandonment can be tied to factors such as a rise in black market sales of pedigree cats by unlicensed home breeders, transactions that usually take place online through platforms such as Facebook, Gumtree and Craigslist. Sickly and unsold cats run a higher risk of being abandoned and are usually let loose unsterilized, say advocates.
CWS, which is largely donation-funded, has just two full-time staff and 23 volunteers, but it still managed to sterilize 6,239 cats in 2018, an average of 17 per day. The group handled some 3,000 mediation cases last year involving cat-related disputes between neighbors and cases where cat owners are served with rehoming notices from the HDB.
When a cat-related complaint is made, the offending resident could receive a letter from authorities compelling them to remove their feline pets or face fines. Complaints are usually lodged against irresponsible owners who let their animals roam freely or practice poor hygiene when cats are kept indoors. Others, however, are model cat keepers.
“We fight for responsible owners to be able to keep their pet cats. We mediate matters between cat owners and other residents or authorities to ensure that pet and community cats do not cause a nuisance,” Vijakumar said.
CWS held nearly two dozen adoption drives last year and it requires prospective owners to sterilize their cats and ensure they are kept strictly indoors.
It’s not just animal activists pushing for change. Chong Pang, a housing estate in the town of Yishun, is a test case for what legalized cat ownership in Singapore could look like. HDB households in the area are permitted to keep one pet cat as part of pilot program launched in 2012 known as the Love Cats initiative.
The program – which requires cats to be sterilized, microchipped and kept indoors – was spearheaded by CWS and maverick parliamentarian Louis Ng, who was then a volunteer in the constituency. He has served the area as an elected representative since 2015 and is actively pushing for the pilot program to be expanded elsewhere.
“It’s time to see whether this decades-old policy can be shifted,” he told Asia Times in reference to the HDB’s cat ownership ban. “We’re taking one step forward first, which is microchipping and the second step forward would be expanding the Love Cats pilot program. It’s a chicken and egg,” said Ng.
“We’ve launched it in one area to see if it works, and so far, it’s been positive. I’m hoping it expands to a few more areas first before we nationalize it,” he said
Once a combative animal rights activist, Ng joined politics after receiving encouragement from Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who he credits with advancing animal advocacy in Singapore. The Love Cats initiative, he said, is an example of how a collaborative approach to policy and legislative reform can achieve results.
“It took a minister [Shanmugam] who was passionate about this issue, us opening our ears to listen and working with agencies to make the changes. If you get to a stage where government and civil society can work closely together, I think we can move ahead much faster than each one going separate ways,” he said.
While the Love Cats program had been widely welcomed by animal advocates when it was launched seven years ago, many expected the initiative would by now be extended to other estates. In an interview with Asia Times, Shanmugam said both the HDB and the Ministry of National Development (MND) were actively reviewing the issue.
When asked about the barriers to a wider roll-out of the program, the minister acknowledged that the initiative – which had subsidized the veterinary fees for cat sterilization and provided a grant to CWS to facilitate the program – is costly and requires further ground-level engagement with communities.
“If you look at most people in HDB estates, they are neither pro-animal or anti-animal. A large majority of them really have no interaction with animals as such. And these are not rental properties, which are sort of situated with a bit of distance from each other. They are all very closely linked to each other,” he said.
While the minister stressed that the majority of cat owners and feeders do no wrong, he said that a small number “have not been responsible”, creating disamenities for the rest of the community. “That has been the challenge in getting the mainstream the majority to accept, for example, the ownership of cats in the community and HDB units.
“It’s not something that can be solved with a magic wand. You’ve got to educate the population at large for greater acceptance and tolerance, which we have been trying to do and are publicizing it. That has played itself out with dogs,” Shanmugam said. “Cats, I think, hopefully, will come next.”
Feline-friendly policy changes would be music to the ears of caregivers like Jeyaraman. She wants to see microchipping for domesticated cats made mandatory and the establishment of an owner registry. The veteran animal fosterer also wants tougher penalties meted out against errant owners who abandon their pets.
“As caregivers to the community cats, every year we face problems of multiple abandonments that we have to take on. We have to use our own money to sterilize the cats and release them back into the community. Feeding is a daily thing and you have to fork out money for that,” she said.
“It does take a large chunk out of your salary. Most of my salary goes to them and quite a bit of my savings goes to them, too.”