When the rescuers of the Independent Pet Adoption Network (Ipan) wanted to round up stray cats in the city for a Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) project, they knew they needed people familiar with KL’s streets – and who would be more so than the homeless and urban poor?
TNR operations are vital to prevent the over-population of strays, which in turn results in these animals often starving, homeless and struggling for their lives.
TNR is therefore the win-win, humane and community-beneficial answer to the larger problem. But trapping the cats is labour-intensive, and in a city riddled with nooks and crannies, such an undertaking needs an innovative approach to be effective.
So Catherine Leyow approached Shyam Priah, founder of Yellow House KL, for help with the cheekily-named Ops Catnip.
Yellow House KL is a non-profit organisation that addresses social issues, such as poverty, via social innovation. If the name sounds familiar, their Unseen Tours have been in the news lately – city tours curated and conducted by the former homeless and urban poor themselves.
“As soon as I approached them with the idea, it was an overwhelming yes!” said Leyow. “And straightaway, they put the plan into action. I love NGOs and social enterprises that see beyond just their own cause, that see the big picture of doing community work for themselves and others in need.”
Rescuers at heart
Shyam put out a call to some of her volunteers; answering immediately and enthusiastically were Razmi Mohamed Ali, 59, Gunnarajah Selvarajah, 56, and Muhammad Yusof Abdullah, 46, all former street people.
“When we choose people for our projects, we need them to be dependable, to want to get off the street and take the opportunity they are being given, and to be free of substance abuse. They must be willing to transform their lives, to take that step,” said Shyam. “And these three are very responsible and hardworking.”
Currently, they live at Pusat Transit Gelandangan Kuala Lumpur, a halfway house in the heart of Chow Kit, which provides temporary shelter for those looking for job opportunities especially.
In addition to knowing the area itself, they are familiar with both the stray cats that live there, and the people from the community who feed them.
A sunny Wednesday morning in March marked the start of the project, which will run weekly over five months.
Most of the cats were caught in the area around the transit shelter.
The volunteers had first approached people they knew in the community, to find out where certain cats hung out, which had kittens and where they might have hidden them.
“This was immensely useful, as we didn’t want to take feeding mothers from their kittens,” said Leyow. “It also gave us insight into how the local people really care for the cats.”
“We did have to do a bit of negotiation with the people feeding them, because many of them weren’t familiar with the concept,” said Shyam. These feeders range from residents of Chow Kit to regulars at nearby restaurants.
“Once we explained what we were doing, most of them were quite happy that (the cats) were being vaccinated and neutered for free. In one case, there was a group that was a bit defensive. But then we met the guy who feeds the cat regularly. One of the Ipan rescuers gave him her contact number, and assured him that we would bring the cat back in a day or two. Then he was more than happy to collaborate with us.”
“The teamwork from the volunteers was amazing,” said Leyow. “We thought we would have to do some hand-holding, as it was their first time – but straightaway, we saw that Gunna knew what he was doing, as if he was a seasoned cat rescuer! He kept his demeanour gentle, and talked to the cats to build trust.”
Former security guard Gunna once worked with a canine unit, so he was comfortable working with animals.
“Razmi and Yusof knew they couldn’t do what Gunna could, so they stood by his side, breaking the food into pieces to lure the cats, carrying the carriers and keeping their eyes on where the cats went. Now that is real teamwork – even more amazing because this was their first time,” said Leyow.
“They were patient and meticulous, and knew not to chase the cats, because that might make them run across a road,” said Shyam. “Some of the cats came to them, seemed to like them.”
Opportunity to give back
While the captured cats were the immediate beneficiaries of the project, it had an undoubtedly positive impact on its volunteers, too. One of the things that the homeless and urban poor have to contend with on a daily basis is the heavy mantle of stereotypes – one of which is that they’re takers, not givers.
“The stigma about street people is that they’re lazy or druggies etc, but you obviously can’t point fingers and say they’re all like this. Given the right opportunity, knowledge and training, they can really shine,” said Shyam.
“Gunna and Yusof both said they felt very good about being able to help animals this way. They’ve been receiving help, and they felt wonderful to be in a position to extend help to others.
“Razmi was not very interested in cats, but he did get a bit emotional at the end of the day – because he said he could relate to the cats being abandoned,” added Shyam. It showed an unexpected vulnerability in the street-smart man.”
“Having a purpose enables and empowers people,” said Leyow. “And we’ve started building rapport with the locals, spreading the word about what we are doing.
“We have already connected with people who live and work in the area, and are willing to help us out with catching the cats. I don’t think this rapport would have come about so easily without our volunteers.”
Raising funds to help
The first day of the project saw seven cats caught. Since Yellow House KL is depending on Shyam’s car for transportation, that’s all they can handle unless they acquire both more space and more carriers.
Once the cats were all caught, the volunteers took them to the vets that Ipan works with, where they would be neutered, vaccinated, and get basic health checks.
The funds for the neutering were raised by the 2017 Arts On The Move KucingTamu by Ipan and Arc Rhinowrites in collaboration with Think City, a community-focused urban regeneration organisation.
If the cats caught during the project are found to be ill or pregnant, they will be fostered until neutering is possible; in the case of the pregnant cats, till they deliver and the kittens are weaned.
The vets perform an ear tip on all neutered cats so they won’t be caught again. Once the cats are fully recovered, the volunteers release them in the same area.
While vet fees are covered, Yellow House KL is crowd-funding to raise RM8,000 for their project operations – carriers and cages, food to lure the cats, volunteer meals, mileage, and a small incentive for the volunteers.
“While the guys are volunteering, we also want to give them a small cash incentive – even though that first day, I had no money to give them any incentive, they stayed and worked throughout,” said Shyam. “They’re good at what they do, so we want to retain them – the sustainability of the project depends on it.”