BEIJING—Beijing has a cat problem: Somewhere between 500,000 and 5 million feral cats are skulking through its courtyard houses, construction sites, and gated apartment complexes, braving the city’s bitter cold winters and raging traffic. Their lives are nasty, brutish, and short.
And in a densely populated city like Beijing, the rise in the number of feral cat colonies is not especially welcome. The cats’ nighttime howls keep people awake. They smell. They prey on the Asian magpie and the Siberian weasel, sometimes known as the "hutong weasel," a ferret-like creature that looks a little like a cute red panda. The cats tend to prefer a perch on the BMWs of the city’s nouveau riche.
Beijing has never been overly sympathetic to the plight of stray cats, famously rounding up thousands of the creatures – both feral and abandoned – in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics (it also shut down factories, shipped homeless people away, and limited the number of cars driving into the city). It’s still not clear whether those cats were euthanized or simply died from disease in shelters, but they were gone.
Four years later, the cats are back. The Chinese are deep into a love affair with domestic animals, creatures that they are reluctant to spay or neuter, says Mary Peng, co-founder of the International Center for Veterinary Services in Beijing. Perhaps it’s a small act of resistance in a country that limits the reproductive rights of its human population, but China does not have the tradition of neutering pets that pet owners in the United States take for granted. And just one female cat can have as many as three or four litters a year, ultimately adding another 100 cats to the feral population in its lifetime.
Peng, a Chinese-American native New Yorker who has lived in Beijing for the last 20 years, has taken on the mission of convincing Beijing’s residents that the best solution to the feral cat population is a program called “trap, neuter, release,” or TNR. The philosophy behind the program is that trapping the animals, fixing them so that they can’t reproduce, and then returning them to their established colony is a better solution than exterminating cats or trying to find them domestic homes.
But the program is controversial. Some ecologists argue that feral cats are so terrible for urban ecosystems, capable of killing off whole species of native wildlife, that they really ought to be euthanized. And groups like the Audubon Society claim that TNR has not proven to be effective in eliminating the population of feral cats anywhere.
“What are my alternatives?” asks Peng. As Beijing itself learned in the recent past, she argues, cities that try to exterminate cats often just find that a new cat colony eventually moves into an area where an old one had been taken away. Not to mention, the mass killing of adorable kittens is a tough sell in any society.
So Peng offers clinics in English and in Chinese to train volunteers in TNR, a project she likens to a “military maneuver” in its complexity and planning. Volunteers must first identify the “care providers,” the kindly people who are leaving out food for the colony, all of whom must be willing to help out with TNR. In Beijing that also means recruiting the cooperation of the neighborhood watch committee, usually made up of retired people wearing red armbands that read “public security officer.”
Once they’re captured, the animals are spayed or neutered, and the tip of their ear is clipped off to show that they’ve been fixed and there’s no need to pick them up again. They’re also given vaccinations and rabies shots, since an approximate 3,000 people in China die of rabies each year, says Peng.
After a day or so, the animals are returned to the spot where they were captured.
Does it do any good? Peng says her goal is not to sustain a feral cat population but to oversee the gradual diminishment of the colonies until they no longer exist. Chaoyang, a district of Beijing, had 23 cats in a colony in 2006. Twenty-one of those cats were trapped, some were successfully adopted, and the others returned. Today, she says, about five cats remain. “We proved to the community it can be done here,” she says.
The International Center for Veterinary Services conducts “hundreds” of TNR operations each year, Peng says, relying on volunteers and donations to keep the programs running. Even though Peng seems determined to soldier on in her project, it’s a drop in the bucket in a city with at least 500,000 cats on the prowl. It is, if you will, exactly like herding cats.
Photo credit: Jason Lee/Reuters