Feral cats & Singapore animal advocacy
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2005:
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
By then, the former Temasek was already Singa-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
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
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 everything,
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 generations. Most of
the human population lives in high-rise apartments, owned by the
state. Rental regulations allow small dogs only, no cats, but
feral cats long ago took over the most congenial 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 ornamental shrubbery and green space
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 kittens 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. Offenders may receive a fine of $10,000
Singapore dollars plus a year in jail. But promoting cat
sterilization 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 initially
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
“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
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
The Cat Welfare Society is only the largest of a
constellation 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 whatever extent any was done–was a British
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
But the numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Singapore
in 1960 had 1.7 million human residents. The central city was still
ringed with truck farms and rubber plantations. Livestock far
outnumbered dogs and cats.
Today Singapore has 4.4 million human residents. Though the
government housing policies discourage petkeeping, 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 advocate for animals on other
fronts. In May 2001 it spun off the Animal Concerns Research &
While AnimalWatch Singapore now focuses on food issues,
ACRES seeks to “Improve the living conditions and welfare of animals
The first prominent ACRES project was a comprehensive 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 nonhuman primate sales to
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 animals 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
ACRES is also seeking land for a wildlife rehabilitation
center, and hosted the 2005 Asia for Animals conference, attended
by 210 delegates from 19 nations. –Merritt Clifton