CAT CAFE FOR A CAUSE

Southeast Asia Globe - - Feature - South­east

A Thai-Amer­i­can in Bangkok is plan­ning a novel way to raise aware­ness and ed­u­cate her com­mu­nity about the stray sit­u­a­tion: Cather­ine Costa plans to open a cat cafe where the com­mu­nity can adopt cats and learn more hu­mane an­i­mal prac­tices.

Har­ness­ing Bangkok’s love of themed eater­ies and In­sta­gram-wor­thy hang­outs, she is fundrais­ing and lay­ing plans for the cafe, which she ex­pects to open be­fore the end of 2018.

“Hav­ing grown up in Amer­ica, I think it’s just about the cul­ture – I al­ways heard grow­ing up that you need to spay and neuter your pets and that if you see a stray an­i­mal, you need to take it to the pound to see if it’s tagged,” she told South­east Asia Globe. “Peo­ple here are not as aware of spay­ing and neu­ter­ing, and they aren’t aware of the ben­e­fits for the an­i­mals and for them­selves and their com­mu­ni­ties.” She be­lieves the in­ter­est is there, point­ing to how peo­ple care for and feed “com­mu­nity an­i­mals”. But the num­ber of strays is so over­whelm­ing – and the cost of their med­i­cal care can be so pro­hib­i­tive – that the sit­u­a­tion be­gins to look help­less.

Costa hopes her ve­gan and veg­e­tar­ian cat cafe will at­tract in­flu­encers and so­cial me­dia per­son­al­i­ties whose life­styles and in­ter­ests are em­u­lated by young Thais. Be­sides en­cour­ag­ing adop­tion, she’s plan­ning a com­mu­nity workspace on site. The cafe will also be one of the few spa­ces fo­cus­ing on cats in Bangkok.

Though Thai­land has a huge num­ber of stray cats, gov­ern­ment ef­forts re­main fo­cused on dogs – in large part be­cause ra­bies is known as “mad dog dis­ease” and while cats can trans­mit ra­bies, 95% of cases come from dogs. The stray cat pop­u­la­tion is also less vis­i­ble since cats hide bet­ter in ur­ban en­vi­ron­ments. Put sim­ply, “the dan­ger that dog/hu­man con­flict poses is big­ger than the dan­ger that cat/hu­man con­flict poses,” ex­plained KC of World An­i­mal Pro­tec­tion. This can put stray dogs, es­pe­cially at the peak of a ra­bies epi­demic, in dan­ger of com­mu­nity vi­o­lence.

Though they aren’t per­ceived as es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous, stray cats are still at risk of vi­o­lence from peo­ple be­cause they can be viewed as a nui­sance.

“Some busi­nesses equate them to be­ing rats,” said Costa. “They can defe­cate on rooftops and have ba­bies in hard-to-reach places. Some are too feral to cap­ture, and if they are in heat, they’re up call­ing at night.” While cats aren’t the main fo­cus of most vet­eri­nary char­i­ties and or­gan­i­sa­tions – Soi Dog Foun­da­tion ster­ilises cats only on Thurs­days, though there’s hope to in­crease ser­vices as the dog pop­u­la­tion de­creases – Costa still be­lieves that spa­ces like her cat cafe of­fer a cru­cial op­por­tu­nity to en­gage with com­mu­ni­ties around top­ics like vet­eri­nary health and re­spon­si­ble own­er­ship.

Costa said com­mu­nity in­volve­ment will be the key to em­pow­er­ing peo­ple and in­creas­ing lo­cal

adop­tion cul­ture.

been kin­der to have hu­manely eu­thanised” the dogs rather than plac­ing so many in a shel­ter that was too small and lacked the nec­es­sary staff and re­sources. He at­trib­uted the over­crowd­ing to the pol­icy of quar­an­tin­ing any dogs within a mile of a ra­bies case – even pets that would typ­i­cally be mon­i­tored at home for symp­toms be­fore be­ing sur­ren­dered. The over­crowd­ing only got worse when the dogs, which hadn’t been sep­a­rated by gen­der, started breed­ing.

Thai­land’s De­part­ment of Live­stock De­vel­op­ment did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple in­ter­view re­quests from

Asia Globe about its re­sponse to stray dogs and ra­bies out­breaks, but it pre­vi­ously re­leased state­ments to the me­dia giv­ing as­sur­ances that it is not fol­low­ing a “set zero” pol­icy of wip­ing out all strays, as some ac­tivists had feared.

The DLD blamed the in­crease in ra­bies cases on pet own­ers fail­ing to vac­ci­nate their pets. But then the Agri­cul­ture and Co­op­er­a­tives Min­is­ter launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into how the DLD had pro­cured the vac­cines it had been us­ing.

The probe specif­i­cally was look­ing into whether a com­pany that sold the vac­cines to the de­part­ment for years – which is owned by the wife of a for­mer se­nior of­fi­cial – had been sell­ing fake or sub­stan­dard vac­cines. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion sought ev­i­dence against five DLD of­fi­cials who faced “se­vere dis­ci­plinary ac­tions” if found guilty, ac­cord­ing to re­port­ing by The Na­tion, but “found no ev­i­dence to prove the al­le­ga­tion that a for­mer deputy di­rec­tor-gen­eral of the De­part­ment of Live­stock De­vel­op­ment had al­lowed his wife to sell vac­cines to the agency im­prop­erly.”

Along with quar­an­tin­ing an­i­mals, the DLD has pledged to ramp up the num­ber of (ef­fec­tive) vac­ci­na­tions and is now co­op­er­at­ing with Soi Dog Foun­da­tion, which is of­fer­ing vet­eri­nary as­sis­tance, ba­sic equip­ment and ad­vice on im­prov­ing shel­ter con­di­tions.

Out of Thai­land’s es­ti­mated dog pop­u­la­tion of 8.5 mil­lion, roughly one mil­lion are free-roam­ing “soi” (street) dogs, a sim­i­lar pro­por­tion found in coun­tries with com­pa­ra­ble so­cioe­co­nomics, said Pankaj KC of World An­i­mal Pro­tec­tion (WAP), an in­ter­na­tional an­i­mal wel­fare char­ity that works with na­tional gov­ern­ments as well as the United Na­tions and World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“Thai­land is bet­ter at the na­tional strate­gic pol­icy level” com­pared to places like Kenya and In­dia, but lags be­hind many Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries “when it comes to manag­ing the pop­u­la­tion of their dogs in a hu­mane way”, said KC, who worked with the Thai gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing the out­break. He said that “the po­lit­i­cal will­ing­ness to ad­dress the is­sue of stray dogs [comes from] the high­est level”, and cred­ited Princess Chu­la­b­horn, the youngest daugh­ter of the late King Bhu­mi­bol, for her de­sire to “hu­manely man­age the stray dog pop­u­la­tion in Thai­land.”

Re­gard­ing the ac­cu­sa­tions of culling in Thai­land, which WAP strongly ad­vo­cates against, KC ac­knowl­edged that “ra­bies is the [main] rea­son that gov­ern­ments and com­mu­ni­ties use as a ra­tio­nale to cull dogs, and many times the knee­jerk re­ac­tion is to kill all dogs whether they have ra­bies or not.” Although it’s un­clear whether the culling was led by the gov­ern­ment or lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, KC ap­plauded lo­cal groups call­ing for ac­count­abil­ity. He be­lieves the only way to ad­dress these is­sues in the fu­ture is to put in place “a strong sur­veil­lance sys­tem” that iden­ti­fies in­fected dogs, their progress and the peo­ple and an­i­mals they have in­ter­acted with. Un­for­tu­nately, he said, “Thai­land is not at that stage yet.”

While the re­cent out­break might not put Thai­land on track for its goal to be ra­bies-free by 2020, the coun­try has made huge strides in the past few decades since its record 370 deaths from ra­bies in 1980. Thai­land’s great­est progress in this bat­tle has been in just the past few years, said Dr. Tun­tikorn Rung­patana, a vet­eri­nar­ian and the di­rec­tor of an­i­mal wel­fare for Soi Dog Foun­da­tion. Though he cred­its the gov­ern­ment’s ef­forts, they fall short, he said

– be­cause the gov­ern­ment spays and neuters an­i­mals as lit­tle as once a month in a given area, un­fixed dogs have gen­er­ous win­dows in which to mate and spread dis­ease.

Soi Dog Foun­da­tion es­ti­mates that 600,000 stray dogs live in Bangkok, against the gov­ern­ment’s es­ti­mate of closer to 100,000. Rung­patana said the foun­da­tion gen­er­ates its es­ti­mate by mul­ti­ply­ing the num­ber of stray dogs found in an area by the to­tal size of the city, while the gov­ern­ment uses num­bers based on re­ported dog sight­ings. He put the num­ber of stray dogs closer to 200,000. Though the foun­da­tion fo­cuses pri­mar­ily on street dogs, it also of­fers ser­vices to pet own­ers who can­not af­ford to vac­ci­nate or spay. Soi Dog has also de­vel­oped a cur­ricu­lum fo­cused on re­spon­si­ble own­er­ship and how to help and care for stray an­i­mals that is taught in ten schools in Phuket.

“The last gen­er­a­tion had no pro­to­col or knowl­edge of ster­il­i­sa­tion,” said Rung­patana. “That’s why to­day the pop­u­la­tion is so over­grown. We must give [stu­dents] the knowl­edge of how to re­solve this prob­lem, and teach them to be ready to have a pet, not just to adopt a puppy be­cause it is cute and then leave it at the tem­ple.”

He was re­fer­ring to the decades-long prac­tice of Thai peo­ple aban­don­ing their an­i­mals at tem­ples – since, as he ex­plained, “peo­ple un­der­stand that the monks can­not say no”. Soi Dog Foun­da­tion of­ten places its mo­bile units at tem­ples be­cause of this prac­tice, which puts in­fected an­i­mals in con­tact with hu­mans and other an­i­mals.

It’s cru­cial to make in­di­vid­u­als and lo­cal gov­ern­ment ac­count­able and to teach re­spon­si­ble own­er­ship in or­der to “tackle the rate of aban­don­ment at places like tem­ples and es­tab­lish the cul­ture of adop­tion”, said Rung­patana.

The vet was care­ful to frame the is­sue as “dog pop­u­la­tion man­age­ment” rather than “stray pop­u­la­tion con­trol” to ad­dress the root causes of the is­sue and to bet­ter of­fer pet own­ers, com­mu­nity mem­bers and gov­ern­ment the tools and ed­u­ca­tion they need to more hu­manely ad­dress Thai­land’s stray an­i­mal prob­lem.

Pro­mot­ing adop­tion re­mains an im­por­tant so­lu­tion, said Rung­patana. Part of Soi Dog ’s adop­tion ef­forts in­clude send­ing up to 300 dogs a year to North Amer­ica, where he said they are more likely to find own­ers.

Rung­patana hopes that rather than see­ing these dogs as ei­ther a nui­sance or a tem­po­rary ac­ces­sory, Thai peo­ple will be­come more mo­ti­vated to adopt strays from shel­ters. Whether in the class­room or through com­mu­nity pro­grammes, those ad­vo­cat­ing and of­fer­ing ser­vices for Thai­land’s strays hope that more ed­u­ca­tion and re­sources will change com­mu­nity mind­sets and help these an­i­mals be seen as pets rather than pests.

“Ra­bies is the [main] rea­son gov­ern­ments and com­mu­ni­ties use as a ra­tio­nale to cull dogs, and many times the knee­jerk re­ac­tion is to kill all dogs, whether they have ra­bies or not”

A dog is car­ried into a mo­bile clinic on Sa­mui Is­land, Thai­land, for neu­ter­ing and vac­ci­na­tionA Soi Dog vet meets pa­tients at a mo­bile neuter-vac­ci­nate clinic in Bangkok

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