The Cat Guardians of Singapore

SINGAPORE – Each and every city has its strays, but in Singapore, they are a bit different. They are not scrawny and vaguely whiffy, but glossy and groomed and known affectionately as “community cats”.

In the daytime, they are fed and watered by a small army of dedicated volunteer feeders – office workers heading home, hipsters heading out, ageing “aunties and uncles”.When the night comes, a hardcore of cat-lovers take to the streets.”This cat is very special,” states a slight man in a loose T-shirt and flip-flops, crouching down by a tower block in northern Yishun district.”She will let me know she is here, but whenever I go to her she will run away. Then when I appear to be going away, she will chase me.”True to form the cat – whose name is Orange because she is – runs after us as we walk away into the night.

There are an estimated 600 "community cats" roaming the housing estates of Yishun
There are an estimated 600 “community cats” roaming the housing estates of Yishun

A serial killer?

“We just carry our handphones and we walk,” states one woman, out patrolling.

“If maybe we can keep one cat safe every night that’s enough.”

Their anxiety for the cats is a very real one, and fuelled by a spate of mysterious deaths of community cats in Yishun earlier this year.

For many weeks, Singaporean media was full of stories documenting the latest gruesome discovery.

Dedicated carefully maintained feeding spots can be found all over Singapore
Dedicated carefully maintained feeding spots can be found all over Singapore

Animals were found with broken limbs, drowned in random ponds, with severe internal injuries and in one case, with an eye even gouged out. In some cases, there was simply no doubt these were deliberate acts of violence.

A total of 39 cats were reported dead within a few months.
Fingerprinting a cat?

Their ease around humans makes the cats an easy target for potential assailants
Their ease around humans makes the cats an easy target for potential assailants

The man in flip-flops – who didn’t want to be named – stands and pauses for just a moment at the entrance way between two tower blocks.

“This is the exact location where they found the carcass,” he explains.

He pulls up a picture on his phone of the tiny pale cat, lying neatly in the deep storm gully, a trail of blood draining away.

It’s obvious, he adds, that this cat was deliberately killed.

Volunteers say the neat placement of the cat in the drain, far from a road, is a clear sign her death was not natural
Volunteers say the neat placement of the cat in the drain, far from a road, is a clear sign her death was not natural

The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), which is the outfit responsible for investigating animal abuse cases, has only ever confirmed two of the Yishun deaths as deliberate killings.

Thirteen of them were falls or traffic accidents, it said, while the other cases remain unsolved.

As corpses kept on turning up, there were mutterings from activists that the AVA wasn’t doing their jobs.

It's almost impossible not to spot a community cat while out at night in Singapore
It’s almost impossible not to spot a community cat while out at night in Singapore

One activist said to BBC that in a country with as many CCTV cameras as Singapore, it should be easy to find the culprit.

Louis Ng, who is an animal-lover and an MP for Yishun, told the BBC earlier this year that the problem was a lack of evidence.

“You can’t fingerprint a cat. You don’t know the next of kin of the cat, and there’s a limited number of people you can interview.”

Mr Ng, who helped set up a rapid-response team to investigate cat deaths, was praising the “amazing community spirit” of the volunteers, calling it the one positive thing to come out of the case.

Bushy's colour and shiny coat indicate she may at one time have been a family pet
Bushy’s colour and shiny coat indicate she may at one time have been a family pet

Two apparently suspects who were not connected were arrested over the Yishun deaths

One was charged and then only this week, another was sentenced to a total of 18 months probation after admitting throwing a cat off the 13th storey of a tower block.

It seems the Yishun deaths have now thankfully come to an end – though only this week in a separate eastern district, a man was arrested on suspicion of another cat killing.

Healthy and relaxed, Cowli's trust of people is a concern for the volunteers
Healthy and relaxed, Cowli’s trust of people is a concern for the volunteers

The AVA praised “civic-mindedness” for his fast identification.

‘A passion for cats’

The man in flip-flops tells the BBC he can’t fully explain to family and friends why he patrols every night, on top of a full-time job.
“Not everyone can understand,” he says. “It’s just out of passion for the cats.”

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As he wanders throughout the night, he is on the lookout for cats he knows – if any are missing, he raises the alarm with the cat guardian network.

Among the cats the BBX met on patrol is Bushy, named for her magnificent tail, her collar and bell suggesting she was at least at some point a family cat.

The aptly named Fatty also briefly passes by before he waddles into the night, while Botty’s Father surveys the scene from a hillock. Botty himself isn’t around tonight.

A black and white cat, Cowli, bounds over with great enthusiasm and lies down near the feet of a reporter.

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