By Samantha Nah, Photos by the NUS CatCafé
When I met Lisa for our interview, she arrived wearing a cat print t-shirt and carrying a Pusheen hoodie. I joked that I was surprised her bag wasn’t cat-patterned as well, upon which she immediately pointed out the cat keychain on the zipper.
Lisa Ong is an ailurophile, one of many (myself included) who volunteer with NUS CatCafé (a group under NUS PEACE) to look after the wellbeing of our campus cats.
The role of NUS PEACE is pretty self-explanatory from its name: the acronym PEACE stands for People Ending Animal Cruelty and Exploitation.
As for NUS CatCafé, I confess I have taken some creative liberties by riffing on the more famous AA in my title, but describing us in this way is not entirely out of left field.
We are cat lovers, and to the general student population, we are mostly unknown figures.
What do we do? Volunteers with NUS CatCafé sign up for weekly slots to feed campus cats residing in University Town, Computing, Engineering, Arts, Science, and Business.
Lisa estimates, “Around all our different locations, I would say we have around thirteen to fifteen cats. Some are transient, others we see on a more regular basis.”
Aside from keeping the cats nourished, the volunteers overseen by Lisa check the cats for signs of illness such as appetite changes, and of injury resulting from fights or accidents.
In mild cases, CatCafé members may administer medication, while cases that require professional attention are brought to our partner clinic, Gentle Oak.
These efforts afford the cats as healthy, happy, and long a life as possible.
Ashy, whom Lisa affectionately dubbed “our big superstar”, is the UTown cat you are most likely to have interacted with.
Always on the lookout for attention, Ashy spends his days wandering the areas from the stairs near the loading bay, to UTown Residence, all the way to Tembusu College.
“I notice that he picks those three spots because that’s where the highest human traffic is for cuddles,” Lisa told me in bemusement.
Ashy has been in UTown for eight years, on record, and he was already an adult cat when he arrived, putting his present age at around ten to twelve years old.
Lisa noted with both a sense of achievement and some grimness that, “That’s actually longer than the lifespan of the average street cat.”
Her committee coordinates the eventual adoption of older cats into a loving home for their golden years.
NUS CatCafé has settled Casper from Computing in such a home. One of the volunteers took him in when his health began suffering due to old age and the threat of a new cat on the block, Tommy. Tommy was a bit of a bully before his sterilisation, as many tomcats are.
Lisa related a cute and funny anecdote about Casper. “He was completely black, with green eyes. And around Computing, there were these all-black benches and chairs, and he would perfectly cat-mouflage himself into one. Sometimes people would accidentally sit on him. But he wouldn’t mind, he would just jump off. People grew really attached to him.”
As our interview continued, Lisa cited several fellow cat lovers at NUS she has gotten to know because of her involvement in CatCafé.
Speaking of the Arts cats, M33y Thai and Crumbs, she noted how they are fed exclusively by Professor Stephen Lim, who has a real emotional bond to M33y Thai especially (so named because of his resemblance to a Muay Thai wrestler).
“That fat lump, nobody can touch him. [M33y Thai] will growl at you if you touch him. But when it comes to Professor Stephen Lim, he’s like, ‘You can pick me up and cuddle my fat lumps.’”
CatCafé even has a way of ‘converting’ people to the ailurophile lifestyle. Volunteers who are initially hesitant or just covering for a friend end up getting emotionally attached and signing up for a regular slot.
Yet the group struggles, at certain times of the year, to find enough volunteers.
Summer break is a particularly dry spell. The committee often has to scramble to find enough feeders, as most people are not around campus then.
If you’re able to volunteer during the summer, Lisa urged, please approach her team. Slots are also available during the semester.
But even if you stop short of committing to that responsibility, there are other ways to help out and participate.
NUS CatCafé has an exciting lineup of events for the coming academic year. Details will be announced on their Facebook page, and you can also follow their Instagram account and check out the new website on Wix.
All proceeds from the events, which combine raising awareness with fundraising, go to buying food at bulk discount for the cats, and paying for their medical care.
“And if you really, really want to help us, you can obviously donate,” Lisa pointed out, and added, “Funds are tight, and expenses for cat food, medical treatment, containers to store the cat food… everything adds up, and it’s a struggle to keep the kitty bank account in the positive range.”
Donating to the CatCafé is a better use of your money than, for example, buying cat food and feeding the cats yourself.
Although they may set out with good intentions, ad-hoc feeders may do more harm than good.
CatCafé volunteers are briefed on the official protocol, which specifies set feeding times to which the cats have grown accustomed, as well as other basic instructions such as waiting for the cats to eat their fill, instead of leaving the food there.
Lisa was quite earnest as she elaborated on this issue.
“The worst thing that you can do is just put the food there and walk away. Because it creates a mess for us, and our volunteers end up having to clean it up before it attracts ants and vermin. And even if the cat finally goes to eat it, it could be contaminated by then, and then you’re giving us the problem of, ‘Oh no, is the cat going to fall sick eating the decaying food?’”
The CatCafé’s standard protocol, on the other hand, ensures that the environment is kept clean and that the cats are assured of a consistent food supply at regular times of the day and throughout the year. Since volunteers update a group chat once the cats have been fed, there is accountability and a shared responsibility for their wellbeing.
The food provided by the CatCafé is also of a certain quality. The kibble is Sanabelle Adult formula with Fine Trout, a German brand which is baked and contains low preservatives.
Brands that can be found in the average supermarket usually contain a high level of preservatives, which in the long term can lead to gallstone problems.
On top of being a physical burden to the cat in question, gallstones incur immense surgery costs to remove.
Even if the cat seems willing to tuck in, that shouldn’t be taken to mean the food is acceptable. Street cats are not often picky about their diet, since they would have had to eat whatever they could get, before arriving on our campus.
So if you’d like to help the cats in the right way, consider working with CatCafé!
While they are technically strays, and you might argue that that means anybody can feed them, there is a group of highly invested volunteers who want to give these cats more stable and comprehensive care. And you can be part of that group!
After all, street cats are vulnerable in a way that house cats and definitely humans, are not. Lisa reflected, “On a rainy day, you have a home to go to, you have a shelter to seek. The cats, they don’t. They have to find their own, sometimes in really dirty, muddy corners around campus, around the HDB block, behind the dumpster. So I think that’s the reason why greater awareness of the welfare of our community cats in Singapore, is needed.”
In Singapore generally, non-profit organisations like the Cat Welfare Society manage the stray cat population and enable their peaceful coexistence in our city.
Outside of campus as well, you might have seen or even tentatively befriended stray cats in your neighbourhood.
Asked for her biggest takeaway from working with cats for some time, Lisa suggested, “Don’t stop at just saying, ‘Oh, cute cat.’ Try to take a more active role if you really want to help.”
If you’d like to “step up your cat game”, as she quipped, go to the events, tell your friends, keep an eye out, volunteer, donate. Every little bit goes a long way.
The writer is currently in Year 4, majoring in English Literature on hard mode. Statistically, she is currently reading or petting a cat. OR BOTH.