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2020-09-04 09:13:59

SHANGHAI — For Zhang, feeding the stray cats outside her apartment block has become a high-stakes stealth activity.

Usually, she waits until after dark before sneaking out to lay down some kibble. If she has to go during the day, she first puts on a hat, face mask, and sunglasses to conceal her identity.

Around 60 felines have taken up residence in Zhang’s housing complex — a large, modern development in eastern Shanghai — and their presence has split the neighborhood’s roughly 1,000 households into two polarized factions.

The cat lovers are determined to care for the animals. They’ve assembled a huddle of small shelters and leave out piles of cat food each day. But they face bitter opposition from the community’s anti-cat residents, who complain about loud midnight yowling and occasional attacks on pet dogs.

Every time I install a cat house or put out food in the compound, I … fear some residents will object and confront me.

Relations between the groups are tense. On one occasion, the cat haters demolished the shelters during the night, forcing the cat lovers to rebuild them in a discreet spot behind some shrubs. Those bold enough to lay out kibble in broad daylight risk verbal abuse from passing locals.

Zhang, a former teacher in her 50s, feels stuck in the middle. She’s so concerned about her neighbors discovering her pro-cat sympathies, she refuses to reveal her full name to Sixth Tone.

“Every time I install a cat house or put out food in the compound, I … fear some residents will object and confront me and my family,” she says.

Zhang isn’t alone. Similar disputes have erupted across Shanghai over recent years as the city’s felines have multiplied. Local conflicts have become so common, the authorities have been forced to step in — launching new cat-management regulations, a citywide stray surveillance app, and local neutering schemes.

Cats are everywhere in Shanghai. Nearly every public park and apartment complex has its own resident pack of strays, lovingly pampered by local residents like Zhang. Many spend hundreds of yuan per month on cat food alone.

But little has been done to manage the city’s street cats, and the result has been a rapidly growing population. Local authorities estimate there could be as many as 3 million stray cats in Shanghai — around 20 for each residential community in the city.

A woman plays with a stray cat in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

A woman plays with a stray cat in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

Many Shanghainese resent these extra guests — and the kindhearted residents who care for them. Zhou Yun, a middle-aged cat lover who lives in another apartment complex in eastern Shanghai, tells Sixth Tone she has frequently been the target of her neighbors’ ire.

Noise and scratching are common issues, as are dead strays appearing in the parking lot. Most of all, people complain the food Zhou and others leave out attracts yet more cats to the compound, exacerbating the problems. When new litters of kittens are born, residents sometimes put them in a box and leave them outside her front door.

“They know I wouldn’t turn my back on those poor babies,” says Zhou.

The arguments have intensified since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as rumors began to spread that cats could be vectors for the disease, according to Zhang, the former teacher. Though there is no evidence felines have passed on the coronavirus, cats are known to be carriers of zoonoses including rabies, toxoplasmosis, and ringworm.

The furor has turned cats into a hot-button policy issue for the Shanghai government. Revising local regulations to make officials responsible for “catching, sheltering, claiming, and adopting stray cats and cats without owners” is listed as a priority municipal project for 2020.

The Shanghai Center for Animal Disease Control, meanwhile, is testing a mobile app designed to “reduce any threats to the urban environment … caused by the increasing number of stray cats.”

A stray cat is covered in gauze after getting desexed in Hangzhou. Zhejiang province, June 24, 2017. Rayfoto/People Visual

A stray cat is covered in gauze after getting desexed in Hangzhou. Zhejiang province, June 24, 2017. Rayfoto/People Visual

The app is designed to foster a citywide system for trapping, neutering, and releasing stray cats on a large scale, to keep Shanghai’s feline numbers in check. The approach — often referred to as TNR — is widely perceived as the most humane and cost-effective method for managing stray animals.

According to Wang Jian, a researcher at the center, the app will connect networks of volunteers, officials, residential committees, pet hospitals, and adoption agencies. Whenever local volunteers spot a stray, they can log the time and location of the sighting via the app, allowing the authorities to arrange for the animal to be desexed.

Creating these networks, however, is a daunting task for a city of over 24 million people. The center aims for the app to reach 50,000 annual downloads once it’s launched, but at the moment it’s struggling to find volunteers to test the app.

With the support of the government, we won’t worry about being judged for rescuing stray cats by other residents.

“It’s mainly because there’s no special fund to support the work,” says Wang. “And there’s no specific government department to manage stray cats.”

But in Lujiazui, the eastern area home to Shanghai’s skyscraper-laden financial district, the TNR campaign is already underway.

Local authorities have partnered with the government-backed Lujiazui Community Foundation to roll out TNR projects in residential complexes. One of the first neighborhoods to test the method has been the Shixin community, a group of six-story walk-ups built in the ’80s.

Zhou Yun, who lives in Shixin and volunteers with the project, says the foundation’s first task in each community is to get the residents onboard by explaining the benefits of TNR. Then, it organizes teams of local volunteers and experienced rescuers to catch any strays in the compound and send them to a pet hospital for sterilization. The cats are then returned to the compound and released.

So far, over half of the 30 cats living in Shixin have been neutered and released, and another 10 will follow once their health condition allows, says Zhou. The hope is that these cats will later find new owners through an adoption scheme the foundation is helping to set up.

The program has also helped upgrade the community’s 12 shelters into waterproof cat “villas.” A partner pet food company provides free kibble, so that residents no longer feed the strays with leftovers. 

For cat lovers like Zhou, meanwhile, a side benefit of the project is that it has lent their attempts to care for the strays a sense of legitimacy. Now, they can lay out kibble in front of the swanky new cat houses in the mornings and evenings, rather than scurrying around the compound after dark.

“With the support of the government, we won’t worry about being judged for rescuing stray cats by other residents,” says Zhou. “We now feel like what we do is aboveboard.”

A cat shelter Zhang built in her community in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

A cat shelter Zhang built in her community in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

The Lujiazui Community Foundation aims to replicate this success in the area’s other 30 residential communities. Eventually, the aim is to launch similar projects across Shanghai.

The question, though, is who will pay for the scheme. In Shixin, the foundation provided 15,000 yuan ($2,200) of funding and plenty of support, but the organizers say they want local residents to play a greater role in future.

“We hope they can raise funds spontaneously and bring their own resources to this project,” says Chen Dong, the foundation’s TNR project manager. “We don’t want them to rely on other organizations to solve problems.”

Neighborhood officials, however, say the government needs to take the lead and provide more funding.

“In many foreign countries, the government is in charge of TNR for strays, and that’s why they can solve this problem effectively,” says Peng Bing, head of a neighborhood committee in another complex in eastern Shanghai. 

Since 2018, Peng says her community has received around 10,000 yuan annually from local authorities for its TNR program, while residents have donated 40,000 yuan of their own money to rescue four local strays this year.

Stray cats in a community in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

Stray cats in a community in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone

“It’s far from enough if we need to rescue more cats, as the medical expenses are high,” says Peng. “We’re constantly worried that we’ll be unable to receive funds from the government the following year.”

Animal welfare groups are trying to help with fundraising. Shanghai Adoption Day, a local nonprofit, has been promoting TNR on social media since 2018, and now provides free neutering for 40 stray cats per month. The campaign, however, is still struggling to gain momentum, according to Vivien Yuan, manager of the nonprofit’s cat adoption platform.

“Even though people know about TNR, most of them are unwilling to contribute their own money to sterilize cats, as it’s expensive or they don’t know how to catch a cat and think the whole process is too troublesome,” says Yuan.

These cats are ... good neighbors for the community.

But Zhang, the former teacher, has placed her hopes in TNR. For her, it’s the only way to bridge the divide between her community’s pro- and anti-feline camps.

“Neutered cats will no longer cry and fight when they’re in heat,” she says. “It’ll eliminate the problem of them disturbing people.”

Since last October, Zhang has been organizing a TNR project in her neighborhood via the social app WeChat, which has attracted over 50 volunteers. In April, the group held a charity sale, raising enough money to fund the desexing of 12 community strays.

Some cat haters remain unconvinced, particularly due to health concerns, Zhang admits. She certainly doesn’t plan to feed the strays unmasked anytime soon. But she still has faith they’ll come to see the felines as friends one day.

“These cats are also effective at preventing rat infestations,” says Zhang. “They’re good neighbors for the community.”

Additional reporting: Wu Ziyi; editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: A woman takes a photo of a stray cat in Shanghai, Aug. 7, 2020. Zhou Pinglang for Sixth Tone)