Life in a cat shelter
For the past 12 years, Phyllis has turned her rented house into a self-funded shelter she calls Blessing Home. In every possible nook and cranny, cats (and the occasional dog) stretch and snooze peacefully; some run to welcome human visitors, purring and pushing their heads against your legs and hands, others leap onto cages in hot pursuit of intruder dragonflies; there is the occasional hiss of cat politics, but otherwise, the nearly two hundred cats are clearly at ease. Previously abused, injured or abandoned, they have only known love here at Blessing Home.
But it wasn't always this way. For years, Phyllis preferred not to take any animals home. "I’ve been a stray feeder for 22 years," she says, "and I have sterilised more than a thousand stray cats and released them back onto the streets." Yet, 12 years ago she was left with no choice. There was a mass culling of street cats, and so this self-professed 'dog person' took in more than 400 cats, cared for them and re-homed as many as she could. "Animals can't debate, can't fight for their rights -- if you don't fight for them, who will?"
Midway through our conversation, Phyllis pauses to chat with two ladies who have dropped by to adopt a small black cat. "This cat was bitten by a dog, his lungs were punctured. Now we found a good home for him. Mama bless you OK? You don't be naughty ah. Don't bully the other cat ah," she says, hugging and kissing the cat goodbye.
Many of the cats are sweet-natured and in good health, but it is clear that she has a soft spot for the injured, abused ones. She shows us Fei Fei, a semi-paralysed ginger whose leg had to be amputated after he was hit by a car. And then there's July Boy, found with his eyeball hanging out; August was found blind and beaten up; Joy Joy - Phyllis' husband’s 'first cat' -- was found at Pasir Ris Fishing Pond with a hook through her mouth. The list goes on -- and the remarkable thing is that all these cats have been steadily nursed back to health with treatment at home, a diet of fresh fish, chicken and tidbits, and most importantly, love.
But life has not been easy for the humans.
"Sometimes when you wake up, there's poo on the floor, atomic bomb everywhere, and then we have to use special chemicals to clean it!" Phyllis grimaces, explaining that some of these street cats take time to learn how to use a litterbox. Phyllis and her helpers often wake at 5.30am or 6.30am, with minimum 12-hour days, just to ensure that the cats are taken care of, and the place is kept fresh and clean. "If I know my schedule is tight, I just need to wake up earlier!" she says.
Her devotion to caring for the cats has even taken a toll on her personal life, she says, admitting that she was separated from her husband for some time due to quarrels over the cats. "Without him, I couldn't do all this," she says, telling us that her husband eventually returned and continues to make personal sacrifices to support her. "He has only half the bed to himself," she tells us -- and no wonder, with at least five cats and a dog as 'permanent residents' in their bedroom.
And of course, money. "I have no education," Phyllis says, so she has only held part-time jobs as a hairstylist, cook and hawker. "But cooking is no problem," she smiles, "so I can get some money for Blessing Home with my year-end cookie sales." She also raises funds with the help of people whose cats live temporarily at the shelter, although since Blessing Home is not a registered cattery, the payment is for cat food, not for boarding.
However, all the money raised is used for the upkeep of the shelter. Even with a special arrangement with The Animal Doctors and discounts at U-Petmart, she spends $50,000 a year on medical bills and $2,500 monthly on food and pine litter for the cats. She also regularly de-worms the cats, clears any mites, and cuts their nails. Even cremation for cats adds to her bills -- "I don't want to just bury them and dirty people's backyard," she explains.
To help save money, Phyllis puts huge basins in her porch to collect rainwater for re-using, and makes all the cat scratch-posts from scrap material. Yet, even with such frugality, money is always scarce, a problem made worse by irresponsible owners who leave their cats with her, promising to collect them and pay for their food at a later date -- but then never show up and continually cancel all her calls. "I'm really stressed because of funds," she says, "but I make sure I don't owe the vet or pet shop a single cent!"
In search of a new home
Perhaps then she has mixed feelings that Blessing Home is now approaching the end of a chapter. Finding a new home will certainly be difficult; in fact, after viewing 51 properties (at the time of writing), she still has not been able to rent a home, due to the increased rental prices and because many landlords do not allow her to keep so many animals -- a request she has always been honest about.
She knows too, that there is no way that they will be able to move all 165 cats with them, which is why she needs to find people who can adopt a cat or two.
But if people do not adopt the cats, she says, she would have no choice but to house some cats in the existing catteries, and would still have to pay for their lodging with her own funds. "I never want to put a cat down -- I'll never abandon the cats," she insists.
"If you ask me, do I want money, or do I want a home for the cats, I'll tell you -- home for the cats!"
While some of the cats are injured and require medical attention, most of the cats in Blessing Home are in good health. All cats are sterilised, and undergo yearly vaccinations, de-worming and mite removal.
Pictures in slideshow by Robin Ann Rheaume
Video by Dawn Teo
Article by Lisa Li
All pictures from: http://blessinghomeshelter.blogspot.com/