Feral cats & Singapore animal advocacy
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1995:
SINGAPORE––The first feral cat in Singapore may
have been the animal for whom the island city-state is named.
He was reputedly a big one, with a red body and
black mane. When he lived and who saw him is mysterious.
Singapore in the fifth century A.D. was known to
Chinese sea farers as “Pu-luo-chung,” meaning “little town at
the end of a peninsula.” From the seventh century to the 10th
century the little town was Temasek, a Buddhist city-state.
After several centuries of obscurity, Temasek rose as
a regional power in the 14th century, passing from Buddhist to
Islamic rule, but was eventually destroyed by warfare. The
ruins were sparsely inhabited until 1819, when Sir Stamford
Raffles rebuilt the ancient palace grounds as the seat of British
government in Southeast Asia.
By then, the former Temasek was already S i n g a –
pura, meaning in Malay and Sanskrit “The lion city.”
Singapore mythology holds that the name Singa-pura
was conferred in the early14th century by the Sri Vijayan
prince Sang Nila Utama, who had sailed from Sumatra seeking
a place to build an empire.
Approaching Temasek, which in the legend did not
yet exist, Sang Nila Utama saw the red-bodied, black-maned
animal. His advisors recognized the animal as a lion, the story
goes, but were mystified, since lions were not known to exist
east of India. They took the lion as a good omen, and chose to
build where the lion had appeared.
However, the story appears to be apocryphal. The
site of the five-king dynasty that Sang Nila Utama founded was
apparently still called Temasek until centuries later.
The first lions known to have been anywhere near
Singapore were among the specimens captured in Kenya by the
Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral Zheng He. Zheng He sailed to
Africa four times between 1405 and 1433. Undertaken with as
many as 300 ships and 30,000 crew, the voyages restocked and
expanded emperor Zhu Di’s zoo.
Zheng He might have lost a lion, or a shipload of
lions, near Temasek. They might have established a small feral
colony that persisted for several generations, fending off the
native tigers and inspiring the mysterious place name.
Cat Welfare Society
Singapore today rivals Hong Kong in almost every-
thing, including as a hub of animal advocacy. As in Hong
Kong, trying to stop wildlife trafficking wins headlines, but
feral cat rescue attracts by far the most public participation.
Like Hong Kong, Singapore has few if any street
dogs, since free-roaming dogs have not been tolerated for gen-
erations. Most of the human population lives in high-rise apart-
ments, owned by the state. Rental regulations allow small dogs
only, no cats, but feral cats long ago took over the most conge-
nial outdoor habitat, with little competition and no significant
predation pressure from the few other predators who share the
island. Extended colonies of 50 or more feral cats, often with
kinked tails symptomatic of inbreeding, thrive in the ornamen-
tal shrubbery and green space between high-rises.
Many are in effect community cats, sprawling lazily
in plain view of passers-by, freely accepting petting or tummy-
rubs. Apartment residents, frequently retired people, have
often become the cats’ avid volunteer feeders and caretakers.
Ubiquitous as feral cats seem to be in residential
areas, the Singapore population is falling. Singapore may have
had as many as 150,000 feral cats in 1999, when
an incident in which someone burned a box of kit-
tens alive shocked the nation. The Cat Welfare
Society formed soon afterward.
The Cat Welfare Society helped to win
passage of a felony cruelty law in 2002. Offend-
ers may receive a fine of $10,000 Singapore dol-
lars plus a year in jail. But promoting cat steril-
ization and coordinating neuter/return work
emerged as the top Cat Welfare Society priorities.
Enlisting the cooperation of dozens of
local cat feeders, the Cat Welfare Society helped
to cut the Singapore feral cat population to
between 60,000 and 80,000 within five years,
according to Agri-Veterinary Authority estimates.
ANIMAL PEOPLE estimated, based
on colony observation with Cat Welfare Society director Dawn
Kwa, plus inspection of parks, rooftops, and alleys, that
Singapore now supports not more than 54,500 feral cats.
The Cat Welfare Society sterilization work was ini-
tially supported by a Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme funded
by the Agri-Veterinary Authority. The Stray Cat Rehabilitation
Scheme sterilized about 10,000 cats between 1999 and 2003,
about half of them with Cat Welfare Society assistance.
Despite achieving a rapid drop in kitten births, the
scheme did not achieve a big reduction in complaints about cats
to public officials, partly because the remaining cats became
tamer and more visible. Then complaints spiked during the
Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome panic of 2003.
SARS apparently crossed into humans via palm
civets, who are both trapped from the wild and factory-farmed
in China. Though civets and felines last shared a common
ancestor probably no more recently than 40 million years ago,
civets are often called “civet cats,” creating a misguided public
impression that felines too might carry SARS.
“Our stand is that there is no evidence that SARS can
affect cats or dogs,” Centre for Animal Welfare chief
Madhavan Kannan told The Straits Times, after testing 140 cats
from the Singapore streets.
His department, however, reportedly picked up and
killed from three to four times more cats than usual during the
next few months, after National Development minister Vivian
Balakrishnan ordained that, “There should be no strays, cats,
dogs or vermin near or in food establishments, markets, or any
other place where food is sold or handled.”
As well as enforcing an ordinance long on the books,
but previously loosely interpreted, Balakrishnan suspended the
Stray Cat Rehabilitation Scheme.
Absorbing a 60% increase in sterilization costs and a
200% increase in rescue costs during the next year, while cat
abandonments surged, the Cat Welfare Society was obliged to
suspend paying sterilization reimbursements to cat feeders.
The Cat Welfare Society now hopes to establish its
own sterilization clinic.
The Cat Welfare Society is only the largest of a con-
stellation of pro-animal organizations founded in Singapore
during the past 15 years, reflecting both a rapid expansion of
humane concern and a transition of animal advocacy leadership
from the expatriate community to native Singaporeans.
Officially, 76% of the Singapore population are of
Chinese ethnicity and speak Mandarin. Muslims of Malaysian
ethnicity are next most numerous, then Hindus of Indian
descent. Only 2% are of European background, mostly British,
but for more than 100 years, animal welfare work––to whatev-
er extent any was done––was a British expatriate enclave.
The earliest trace of the Singapore SPCA was an
October 1878 note in The Straits Times mentioning that it
investigated 84 cruelty cases in the first quarter of the fiscal
year, resulting in 10 magisterial warnings and six convictions.
The Singapore SPCA and two other Singaporean animal
welfare societies attended the 1910 International Humane
Congress, hosted by the American Humane Association in
Washington D.C., “but until 1947, there are no other details
available,” the Singapore SPCA web site says. “In 1947, the
RSPCA, as it was known then, was revived by an English-
woman, Miss Lucia Bach. She ran a boarding house and took
in stray animals.”
The society incorporated and opened a shelter in 1954,
in 1969 became one of the first major humane societies in the
world to require sterilization of all adopted animals, opened a
sterilization clinic in 1976, and in 1984 moved to the present
site––which is about the size of a gas station/convenience store.
Lack of space contributes to a Singapore shelter killing
volume that has plateaued since the early 1990s at about 9,000
dogs and 12,000 cats per year, between the Agri-Veterinary
Authority and the SPCA.
But the numbers alone do not tell the whole story.
Singapore in 1960 had 1.7 million human residents. The cen-
tral city was still ringed with truck farms and rubber planta-
tions. Livestock far outnumbered dogs and cats.
Today Singapore has 4.4 million human residents.
Though the government housing policies discourage petkeep-
ing, the Singapore pet population almost certainly grew at least
as fast as the human population. The plateau in shelter killing
accordingly reflects significant progress, likely to accelerate if
Singapore SPCA executive director Deirdre Moss succeeds in
negotiating a longterm lease on larger and more conveniently
located property when the present lease expires next year.
The Singapore SPCA, like most older mainstream
humane societies, appears to have emphasized care of work
animals in early years, and companion animal issues ever
since. AnimalWatch Singapore emerged in the 1990s to advo-
cate for animals on other fronts. In May 2001 it spun off the
Animal Concerns Research & Education Society.
While AnimalWatch Singapore now focuses on food
issues, ACRES seeks to “Improve the living conditions and
welfare of animals in captivity.”
The first prominent ACRES project was a compre-
hensive report on bear bile markets outside of China, by former
AnimalWatch president Guna Subramaniam, who is now Asian
director of Care For The Wild. ACRES followed the bear bile
trafficking investigation with others looking at other branches
of the wildlife trade, including the exotic pet industry and non-
human primate sales to biomedical research.
Singapore prosecuted 34 people for wildlife offenses
in 2000. Since ACRES debuted, prosecutions rose to 68 in
2003 and 97 in 2004.
ACRES president Louis Ng, 27, a commando in the
Singaporean national defense force reserves, is pushing for
more. The Agri-Veterinary Authority recently seized 47 turtles
of protected species from three local pet shops. ACRES at a
July 22 press conference presented the results of an undercover
investigation which found that about 20% of the pet shops in
Singapore are selling protected or restricted species. Among
the 100 pet shops that ACRES visited, Ng said, were 111 ani-
mals of contraband species.
“ACRES is calling for stricter enforcement in
Singapore, as well as amendment of the Endangered Species
Act to eradicate loopholes and increase the penalties,” Ng said.
“ACRES believes that the main loophole in this Act is that it is
based on a per species basis. All a trafficker has to do is traffic
in only one species at a time and the penalties are minimal.
“The highest possible fine would be about $3,000
U.S. plus a year in jail. ACRES proposes that the Act should
be amended to a per animal basis, and for wildlife parts, a per
kilogram basis,” Ng finished.
ACRES is also seeking land for a wildlife rehabilita-
tion center, and hosted the 2005 Asia for Animals conference,
attended by 210 delegates from 19 nations.
Cat Welfare Society, Orchard Road, P.O. Box 65, Singapore
912303; <email@example.com>; <www.catwelfare.org>.
Singapore SPCA, 31 Mount Vernon Road, Singapore 368054;
6278-5355; fax 6286-5997; <firstname.lastname@example.org>;
ACRES, 11A Opal Crescent, Level 3, Singapore 32840; 65-
6296-7758; <email@example.com>; <www.acres.org.sg>.