The compassionate cat catchers of Bel-Air
EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT - Jessica Zafra (The Philippine Star) - September 22, 2012 - 12:00am

On Monday afternoons Bel-Air Village homeowner Tracy Tuason boards a van from Compassion And Responsibility for Animals (CARA) and goes around the neighborhood catching cats. CARA is a non-government, non-profit, volunteer-run organization, which advocates animal welfare. Bel-Air, like most neighborhoods, has a population of stray cats. Acting on reports called in by the residents, Tracy and the staff from CARA round up stray cats and bring them to the “cat condominium” behind the Barangay Hall.

The following day the cats are taken to the CARA clinic in Singalong, where volunteer veterinarian Dr. Riza Zunio attends to them. The female cats are spayed (their ovaries are removed, as in a hysterectomy) and the males neutered (castrated) so they will no longer produce kittens. In theory, a pair of cats can produce up to16 kittens in one year, 128 in two years, and 67,000 in six years—a population explosion. Spaying and neutering not only keeps the feline population in check, but it makes the cats less prone to disease. It lowers the risk of breast cancer in females, especially if they are spayed early enough, and prevents severe uterine infection. It also reduces the danger of testicular and prostate problems in males.

After the cats have been spayed or neutered, they are marked with straight cuts on the tops of their ears (left side for females, right side for males) to indicate that they’ve been “fixed.” Then they are taken back to the barangay cat condo to recover from their surgery. Barangay employee Emy Rufin takes charge of the cats — feeding them, keeping their holding area clean, and giving them their medication when necessary. Usually the cats are up and about in three days, at which point they are returned to the areas where they were collected. Since spayed and neutered cats will no longer mate, they won’t be going into heat and keeping people awake at night with their yowling and screeching. They become less inclined to mark their territory with urine or get into fights with other cats.

The cost of the surgical procedure, which runs to about P500 per cat, is shouldered by Barangay Bel-Air under its indefatigable barangay captain, Nene Lichauco. Always the pioneer in community services — from free flu and pneumonia shots for residents to continuing education programs for household help —Barangay Bel-Air is the first in the country to adopt the trap-neuter-return (TNR) program for stray cats. “In Bel-Air we take care of everyone, including the cats,” Nene Lichauco declares. The trap-neuter-return initiative is covered by a barangay council resolution. “Given the speed at which cats breed, we had to put the program in effect as soon as possible. It’s a win-win situation for everyone, both the humans and the cats.”

Of course there have been objections. Concerns about the cost were quickly resolved — Bel-Air has the budget for the stray cats program. Changing people’s attitudes towards stray animals will take more work. Great progress has been made in educating the public on animal rights, but many still regard feral cats as pests to be eradicated automatically.

“If there are no cats in the neighborhood, the rat population would grow very quickly,” Tracy Tuason points out. Those who support feral cat eradication cite the danger of rabies, but rabies is actually very rare in cats. On the other hand rats commonly carry serious diseases like leptospirosis.

“The barangay gets complaints about cats making noise or leaving their waste in people’s yards,” Tuason notes. “Spaying and neutering addresses the noise problem, but the poop is something we have to live with. You can’t stop an animal excreting, it’s against nature.” Forbidding a cat from pooping would be like banning trees from shedding leaves or suing the wind for bringing dust. “I recommend that residents leave a pot of earth in the backyard that the cats can use as their litterbox.”

The notion that animals have as much of a right to this planet as we do is positively radical to some people. Periodically we hear reports of parks, residential complexes and university campuses whose administrators’ ideas of feline population control make medieval Inquisition tactics seem humane by comparison. There are true horror stories about feral cats being trapped and killed by the dozen. Other violators of animal rights actually regard donating cat corpses to universities as a practical solution to the “problem.” As long as stray cats are regarded as a problem and not a fact of life, animal rights proponents have their work cut out for them.

One of the most successful models for Bel-Air’s TNR program is Disneyland, the world-famous theme park in California. Disneyland may be the home of Mickey Mouse, but its rat population is kept in check by the 200 cats who live on the grounds. These natural rodent exterminators have been officially recognized as part of the theme park’s day-to-day operations. In the last decade, Disneyland has developed a protocol for the humane care of the community cats. They are trapped, spayed or neutered, given a basic medical check, then released back into the population.

Visitors don’t see the Disneyland cats, which patrol the greens in search of mice after they’ve gone home. Hidden feeding stations for the cats further minimize contact between cats and visitors. The trap-neuter-return program ensures a mutually beneficial relationship for humans and cats.

Back in Barangay Bel-Air, Emy Rufin is giving her feline charges their medicines. In a few days they will be healthy enough to return to their homes, where their relations with the human residents should be a lot more cordial. “When we catch the cats, we explain to the homeowners that after they are spayed or neutered, they will be returned to the area,” volunteer Tuason says. “We hope people are getting used to the idea that there are other creatures on this earth who are entitled to our care and protection.”

And we hope other communities will start their own trap-neuter-return programs for feral cats. Make “environment-friendly” and “sustainable” more than just buzzwords; make them real. Start by acting humanely towards all the residents, not just the humans.

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