CAT WELFARE WORK AND FERAL CAT CONTROL IN ETHNIC COMMUNITIES
This was not an easy article for me to research, because I feel awkward discussing racial differences. I am therefore particularly indebted to Brij Sharma for his information on cat keeping habits in British Asian communities; in particular his information about Hindus and their cats. Brij and his family are proud owners of a very spoilt cat called Raja (shown below left with Brij's wife Dhiraj) and they inform and advise friends and neighbours on cat care and welfare. Thanks also to Mr A Qureshi for some information relating to Muslims originating from the Punjab. Additional information was provided by my ex-husband's Malaysian and Chinese students.
This article is aimed at those performing cat welfare in ethnic communities within their own country (with some reference to work overseas) where they will encounter different cultural attitudes towards animals. These attitudes are part of the community's culture or religion and may differ from the cat workers own cultural attitudes. It is necessary to work within various restrictions since cultural attitudes change only slowly, if at all. Such communities are trying to preserve their cultural traditions in their adopted country of residence and may view the cat welfare worker as trying to erode these traditions. Note: sensitivity to cultural differences does not mean that individuals in ethnic communities are immune from prosecution should evidence of animal cruelty be found.
Because the major ethnic communities in Britain are Asians from the Indian Subcontinent, the information presented is mostly derived from, and applicable to, these communities. As I obtain information about communities of other ethnic extractions, I will add to this article. Some degree of generalization is inevitable, but is based on my own experience and information from contributors, not on racial stereotypes or prejudice.
Those wishing to work in animal rescue/welfare overseas are advised to contact existing organisations working overseas e.g. Japan Animal Welfare Society (JAWS) WSPA for specialist advice.
DIFFERENT CULTURAL ATTITUDES TOWARDS CATS
The control of feral cats in ethnic communities requires special care because cultural attitudes towards cats vary. This includes:
** Attitudes towards allowing them inside a human dwelling
** Whether neutering is permissible due to religious observances
** Whether other forms of population control (e.g. contraceptive implants) are permissible
** Whether euthanasia is permissible.
For example, one British cat worker in a predominantly Muslim country suffered verbal and physical abuse because of strictures forbidding any form of intervention in the natural cycle of birth and death. Feral cats were released from traps by local people opposed to both neutering and euthanasia. Under some religious codes, suffering and death are considered part of life and only god(s) may intervene; humans are not permitted to interfere with the role of go(s). This is most obvious when non-observant people undertake animal rescue work in those countries where religion is has central role in life. The same cultural hurdles are found in many regions in Britain, parts of Western Europe and, possibly America.
An individual or community may work to either the spirit or the letter of their religious books. Within a community, some households are more orthodox or traditional than others. Many feel that their traditional values are being eroded by the loose morals of the country that they, or their parents/grandparents, have settled in. The younger generations, are often more eager to assimilate the attitudes of their adopted country. This difference in attitudes between generations may cause conflict within the community itself and you must remain neutral or risk losing the support of the community as a whole.
When educating anyone on cat care and welfare it is important to be tactful and to give their cultural values due consideration. Any cat care/welfare message must be adapted to a cultural values e.g. neutering might complement the respect for life by reducing the obvious suffering of feral cats and kittens, preventing a distressingly high mortality rate and creating a healthy, non-suffering feral population. If you are working in your own country and encounter cruelty, you need to draw attention to the fact that animal welfare legislation applies to everyone, regardless of ethnic origin.
ATTITUDES OUTSIDE OF YOUR NATIVE COUNTRY
For British animal lovers, the most distressing culture clashes will occur overseas. You must understand that dogs and cats are legitimate menu items in some countries and are not considered, not treated as, family members. The British are seen as unnecessarily sentimental about animals which are seen elsewhere as disposable. In some Mediterranean areas, newborn kittens are dumped in rubbish bins or in streets or fields as food for stray dogs or carrion birds. Elsewhere, workers find female cats whose nipples have been removed (without anaesthetic) so that their kittens cannot suckle and will starve as a form of population control. In numerous places, stray and feral cats are routinely poisoned when the population becomes troublesome. Even where neutering is not against religious or cultural beliefs, it may be considered a waste of time and effort; hence much effort is spent on treating the symptoms (unwanted cats) and not the cause (feline fertility).
Distressing culturally governed attitudes towards cats are also found in highly developed countries. Animal welfare is particularly poor in Japan where "unfashionable" pets may be abandoned and may end up in laboratories where anaesthesia is not used during experiments. In America the practices of declawing (partial toe amputation) and pound seizure (seizing unclaimed animals for use in laboratories) are considered barbaric by animal workers in Europe. In Australia, one pound's practice of allowing cats to be dumped in sacks in a metal box for collection and destruction at the pound's convenience was condemned by cat owners around the world. A similar disposal scheme for unwanted dogs (the "chute" into a dumping bunker) has reportedly been operated in Japan in the past.
An extreme example of differing cultural values was experienced by a Briton in part of Asia, who visited a religiously sponsored animal shelter where euthanasia was absolutely prohibited as life must be preserved at all costs. Life-prolonging surgeries were permitted and this led to situations where a dog or cat had endured multiple limb amputations. Staff lovingly tended the animal and refused to consider euthanasia because life itself was precious, while the Briton tried to convince them (unsuccessfully) that quality of life, not duration, was of prime importance to the animal concerned. This was an extreme, and rare, example and it should be emphasised that the staff genuinely thought they were doing the kindest thing be preserving and prolonging life.
Many shelters and welfare societies abroad rely on Western tourists for donations e.g. The Kenya Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (based in Nairobi and Mombasa), SPANA, Brooke Memorial Horse Hospital (whose vets also treat cats and dogs, mostly owned by ex-patriot Europeans/Americans). Japan Animal Welfare Society is dependent on Europeans for support because cultural attitudes of 'disposable' and 'fashionable' are applied to pets as well as objects. Most of these can be located on the Internet and can provide advice if you are considering supporting their work through financial or practical means. In societies were pet-keeping (to UK or US standards) is not common, this leads to the image of Europeans, especially the British, as being overly-sentimental about animals.
This article cannot discuss all overseas situations since existing workers/organisations in those areas are better placed to discuss local conditions and traditions. There are many ethnic communities in our own countries where feral work must be undertaken carefully because of imported cultural values. Where there is existing tension due to racism, an animal worker may be treated with hostility or suspicion or as someone intent on eroding traditional values or morals.
ATTITUDES TOWARDS CATS IN BRITISH ASIAN COMMUNITIES
Cat keeping habits have been studied in someBritish Asian communities including orthodox Muslim communities and in mixed communities of Muslim, Hindu and Judeo-Christian residents. One orthodox Muslim community reportedly comprised approximately 2000 households close to common land which harboured plentiful rodents and provided ample shelter and territory for over 200 feral cats. There were numerous small, inter-related colonies totalling over 500 cats, with many households keeping outside cats to control mice. The cats were not generally kept as house pets, but some have been handled by children as kittens and tolerate human contact and handling. Most of the cats are totally wild.
This is very much in keeping with attitudes towards cats in the India and Pakistan where the majority of cats are street cats pursuing an existence termed in Britain as "semi-feral". Any cats which belong to individual households live and are fed outdoors. Food is generally household food scraps including meat rinds, chapatis, milk and cooked rice and this supplements whatever the cats themselves catch. This attitude is reflected in a Punjabi saying "Cats are dreaming of rind" meaning hungry cats (usually said of a person whose stomach is rumbling). Historically, feral cats in such areas were mostly fed by non-Asian residents although some Asian families (often those with children who have picked up on traditional "soppy" British attitudes) are also providing food and even shelter (boxes, crates) for small groups of cats adjacent to their property to encourage the cats as rodent killers.
Most of the street cats scavenge for waste or hunt mice and birds, with occasional milk and scraps being provided. Younger generations of people in the communities are more kindly disposed towards the cats and may provide proprietary cat food. The cat feeding is often carried out by non-Asians in the community. Where cat food is provided Muslim household it is either Halal meat scraps (from butchers or households) or chicken, fish, lamb, beef or rabbit flavoured proprietary cat foods. Pork is absolutely forbidden. Hindu households will not feed their cats on products containing beef. Those cat foods which simply list "meat and meat derivatives" are considered potentially unclean.
A number of households own pet cats. In the UK, most cats owned by Asian families live in the shed or garage, not in the house. Some are not permitted in any part of the house although this depends of how traditional the household is. This is not a sign of neglect; it is in keeping with cultural attitudes to having cats in house. Cats are traditionally viewed as utilitarian creatures rather than companion animals. Expect to see a great difference in such attitudes across the different generations. Where tradition does not allow the cats inside, tactfully recommend that an outdoor shelter is provided in the form of a kennel or a cat bed/basket in the shed or garage. The cat's shelter/bed should be draft free since a healthy cat is a far better hunter of rodents and is less likely to stray elsewhere. Such pet cats are often on a par with farm cats (barn cats) and may be semi-wild or nervous rather than fireside kitties.
Where a pet cat is permitted in the house there will probably be restrictions. In general, Asians do not allow the cat into the kitchen and it may not sit on chairs, sofas or beds. Despite being regarded as clean animals by most Muslims (Mohammed apparently had a cat), permitting a cat in food preparation or sleeping areas is considered unhygienic. To traditional Hindus, cat hair is considered unclean and accidentally swallowing it is believed to cause skin diseases, hence restrictions on where it may go in the house. However, if the cat intrudes into a forbidden area of the household, it is unlikely to be harmed when ejected, since harming a cat is bad karma.
In respect of pet keeping and allowing the cat indoors, elders generally have more traditional attitudes while children pick up attitudes from mixing with children of varying ethnic backgrounds at school and from exposure to media. For example, Brij's wife took a while to get used to having a cat indoor (coming from a more traditional background) while their children had a wholly Western attitude to having a cat indoors and on the furniture and never mind the cat fur.
Several factors contribute to large feral cat populations in some ethnic communities. Children are important in close knit communities so cars are driven very carefully because of child safety. The mortality rate of cats on the road is therefore negligible. Hindus in the community are also careful to avoid killing cats on the road; killing a cat results in bad karma which must be atoned for in the next seven incarnations. In most Asian communities there are no stray or pet dogs because dogs are considered unclean by the Muslim community. Some businesses have guard dogs which are confined on business premises. As well as few deaths on the roads and the absence of dogs, orthodox Muslims do not permit artificial methods of birth control as being against Muslim law. Some cats owned by less strict households might have been neutered and might be kept in a more "Western" manner.
In such conditions, feral populations multiply unchecked; limited only by illness and food supply. Such cats are rarely regarded as a problem by the community as street cats are very much the norm in the Indian subcontinent. The Muslim religion and culture teach that it is the duty of all Muslims to observe the laws of Allah (Blessed be his name) and to be kind to animals. The Hindu religion teaches that it is extremely bad karma to kill or harm a cat. Hence it is unlikely that residents will complain about street cats to the local council or demand that they are controlled or removed. Some people will feed the cats little realising that this contributes to the population explosion. It is likely that no-one has seriously considered neutering the cats.
For all these reasons, street cats in Asian communities are usually left in comparative peace and not subjected to many of the dangers or harassment found in other densely populated areas. Adult cats may appear relatively healthy, but young kittens are often seen with severe cat-flu which causes high mortality. It is rarely possible to ascertain how many kittens die or how many of the adults become sick and die unnoticed. Veterinary treatment is not usually sought for sick cats, but this must not be regarded as an act of overt cruelty - the street cats are tolerated, even welcomed, but they do not actually belong to anybody and their life or death is considered the will of God. Where the community falls into an area monitored by a feral cat group, healthy tame cats and kittens might have been periodically removed and rehomed, but this does not address the underlying problem of feline fertility or of treating old, ill or injured cats.
This may sound odd, but your own gender will have some bearing on how you are treated. Again, it is dangerous to over-generalise but Asian and Arab communities retain traditional gender roles which affect communication between men and women and which will also be applied to you. if you want to help cats in their community then you must earn the co-operation and friendship of the residents.
The majority of cat rescue workers out in the field are women. Women can expect to encounter attitudes very different from the liberated sexual equality they are used to. You must dress modestly, avoiding expose unnecessary amounts of bare flesh - no skimpy teeshirts or shorts. Attitudes towards you will vary, but common guidelines include not holding a man's gaze as this is immodest. Always show respect to persons older than yourself and even if you strike up a good working relationship with community leaders (generally men) do not expect them to call you by your first name as this is considered undue familiarity. I worked for some years with a Muslim who hailed from the Punjab; in all that time he was uncomfortable about using calling me "Sarah" (too familiar for his comfort) I was uncomfortable about being called "Mrs Hartwell" (too formal for my comfort). The eventual compromise to use my nickname as this wasn't over-familiar and wasn't over-formal.
If you are a man, you should not approach or talk to a traditional Muslim woman without first addressing her husband otherwise you risk causing offence. In some cases you may not be allowed to address a woman at all, except via a male relative. How strictly this is observed depends on the community you are working it. Proceed with caution and if in doubt always ask the man if it all right for you to speak to his wife/daughter. It is better to cause some laughter at over-politeness than to cause offence which is difficult to heal. Children are a great source of pride in an Asian community and most parents visibly glow with pride when complimented on their children.
You may find differences in personal space; Asian and Arab men may stand closer together than you are used to and may even hold hands while talking. The distance maintained between a man and a woman (except for relatives) may be greater because of Muslim proximity "rules". My husband was not allowed to remain in the same room as his Muslim colleague's wife unless her husband, or myself, was also present. The difference in personal space can cause awkwardness as each party tries to establish his or her comfortable distance - the best guide is too observe people around you and how close they stand to each other.
Sometimes with Muslims of Arab origin you will find that men resent being addressed by a woman and you may have to speak via an intermediary (often a boy) though this is more common overseas. Many Arab families maintain a tradition of hospitality and this should be accepted graciously, however possessions should not be overly admired in case your host feels obliged to make a gift of it to you. I was cautioned against saying that my contacts' children were beautiful and to always show respect to elder members of the community. As a woman, one of the hardest parts was avoiding criticising people if I disagreed with something. Instead I had to phrase things as suggestions for improvement rather than criticism of how things were currently being done. The suggestions then had to be discussed and considered. It often took an infuriatingly long time, but patience and discussion win respect.
Be aware of any religious festival, holidays and prayer days. When working in a Muslim community be aware of Ramadan when food, drink and cigarettes may not be consumed during daylight hours (with exceptions made for pregnant, nursing or ill individuals). During Ramadan, food will not be in evidence during the day; you should provide your own food and it is not considerate or polite to eat, drink or smoke in front of a person who is fasting. You won't be expected to fast, but if you have ever been on a diet you will know how unpleasant it is watching someone else eat. For this reason, I always absented myself from my shared office when my colleague was fasting. And when you are eating, avoid prohibited foods e.g. pork or beef.
Also beware of pointing with the forefinger (best to use the whole hand) or beckoning with a forefinger as this causes offence in some cultures. Absent-mindedly ruffling a child's hair may also cause offence. The best way to create a favourable impression is with courtesy, respect and sheer hard work!
If it seems that everything you do is liable to offend someone, just remember that Westerners are often perceived as loud, immodest, arrogant or disrespectful and you must first establish that you want to work with people rather than ordering them about. If you know where many of the community members originate from (or their parents/grandparents originate from) then buy a good guidebook about that country or region - look for one which tells you about the country's culture and religion. It will help you to appear polite and respectful by another culture's standards of behaviour and it demonstrates an interest in the people you will be working with. It will also give you some topics of conversation and ice-breaking questions. Most people are proud of their ancestry and heritage and will be surprised and pleased when you show an interest.
PRACTICAL PROBLEMS FACING CAT WORKERS
The most obvious problem facing cat workers in some Asian communities is that many of the older residents do not speak good English. The major languages include Urdu, Gujurati and Punjabi, but this depends on the region of origin of the residents. Some, particularly the middle-aged and older women do not speak any English at all. Some households may be very traditional and the women may live in total seclusion (purdah); they are fully robed (in chadors) when outside and will not speak to strangers. However, the children are usually bilingual and act as translators, they are also interested in the cats and are often eager to help the cats.
Posters and information leaflets therefore have to be translated into Urdu and Gujurati, or even better - presented in bilingual form - and it is appreciated when cat workers learn some basics language skills in at least one of these - again, the children are most eager to help. Cats Protection produce basic cat care leaflets in Urdu and Gujurati (and also Welsh).
The Community is very important and there is likely to be a community centre (often as part of, or close to, a place of worship) and in traditional communities, elders are greatly respected. If you are invited into a Mosque, you should observe dress rules: for women this means modest dress with shoulders and arms covered, though head-covering is not mandated in all areas. A donation to the Mosque collection is a welcome gesture of respect. Though Westerners may consider some religious observances "sexist" these views must be put aside if you are to gain any respect and be able to carry out any cat work. In very strict households a woman may not give instructions to a man, and your recommendations (which might be relayed through a junior male member of the household) must be phrased tactfully so that they do not appear to be orders.
A Community Centre may make a suitable base to hold a regular ‘surgery’ for residents who want general advice on cat care or who would like help with veterinary treatment, neutering or the re-homing of kittens. It should be possible to find volunteers from within the community who will assist with practical aspects of the cat welfare project and who will later monitor feeding sites and shelters. Local volunteers can also help with cat care education programmes working with neighbours and with children so that future generations grow up with an awareness and understanding of feline welfare. Some Hindu friends in Ilford's Asian community are a one-family cat welfare education scheme and have been involved in advising neighbours and occasionally in rescuing cats from unsuitable circumstances, obtaining leaflets and information from local charities.
Out of respect for the teachings of the Koran on the subject of birth control, cat welfare projects are best not promoted as neutering schemes unless the community has already expressed a willingness in this matter. The emphasis should therefore be placed on improving the quality of life and welfare of the cats. The subject of neutering should be approached with considerable tact and diplomacy. Abortion is anathema to Muslims hence the spaying of obviously pregnant cats is distressing to the community. Trapping and neutering must therefore occur outside of the breeding season and visibly pregnant cats must be released if trapped. In some cases - where cats are trapped on private property - the worker may have to give an undertaking that no action will be taken which may cause offence and neutering and other veterinary procedures will only be undertaken where there is informed consent.
Neutering will reduce the amount of caterwauling. Hindus consider caterwauling to be an omen of a death in the vicinity (much like a wailing banshee). Cats are believed to be very paranormal animals, able to see the spirits or messengers who come to collect the souls of the dead. When they see such a spirit they wail and this is a sign that someone in the area is about to die.
Among Muslims who own cats, the attitude towards neutering will depend on whether they are traditional or moderate in their interpretation of the Koran and whether the individual feels himself to be doing God's work in preventing suffering rather than infringing God's work. I know Muslims who say that God has entrusted the cat's care to them and that this includes neutering. Because tomcats spray smelly urine, neutering may be seen as a cleanliness issue and neutered cats may be considered "cleaner" by some. A neutered cat is a far better hunter as it becomes more single-minded and is not distracted by the urge to mate. Neutered toms also stop spraying foul-smelling urine and are cleaner in their habits. Spayed females do not attract unneutered toms which might foul the area through spraying. Deal with each person's beliefs individually and be aware that a person who agrees to neutering may face hostility from their own community.
An alternative to surgical neutering is contraceptive implants for female cats - the cat continues to cycle but cannot conceive. Some people have used them where they do not wish their neighbours to know that the cat has been sterilised. Contraceptive implants must be replaced periodically. Midline spaying is an alternative unobtrusive method, but is generally considered unsuitable for feral cats due to risk of burst stitches and ruptured abdomen (due to weight of bowel on stitches).
Although euthanasia is strictly against the teachings of the Koran, many Muslims accept that on occasion, this will be necessary to relieve or prevent suffering. Some, however, will insist that nature take its course in which case pain-relieving treatment must be tactfully recommended. During trap-neuter-return [TNR] it must be stressed that healthy animals will not be euthanized. Where the community is agreeable to limited euthanasia of ferals, the criteria for euthanasia should include FeLV, FIV, severe cat flu, other severe infections and also serious injury which would reduce quality of life. Minor conditions can be treated at the time of neutering and flea and worming treatments can be given. Healthy cats should be identified (e.g. ear-tipped) before returning them.
Tame cats/kittens and those which can be tamed if resources permit, should be rehomed (trap-tame-rehome [TTR]). Where kittens are too wild to be considered for re-homing, these will be early-age neutered and returned to site; if early-age neutering is prohibited then they must be re-trapped later.
WORK IN OTHER COMMUNITIES
I currently have very little data relating to pet cat or feral welfare schemes in other ethnic communities e.g. Chinese communities and recent Eastern European refugee households.
Among Chinese families there is resentment when they are accused of eating cats and dogs, or of serving them in restaurants. When my husband taught software skills, he came into contact with Chinese and Far Eastern students. They confirmed that in China cats are farmed for their fur and in some areas they are eaten, but they also kept as rodent hunters and pets. The image of a cat-eating Chinese person is a racial stereotype which must be avoided by cat workers. The same stereotypes are often applied to other Far Eastern peoples - whatever animals they may farm and eat in their home countries, most are painfully aware of the taboos against pet-flesh in Britain and resent accusations about cats being eaten in their ethnic communities in the UK.
Among more recent immigrants, the main problem is that many newcomers already face the problems of a new country, a new language and new lifestyle and are not well versed in British animal welfare legislation or practice (especially neutering). Many resettled individuals take on a cat for company, not realising that their tenancy contracts prohibit pet-keeping. Others are unable to apply a standard of care in accordance with their new countries acceptable standards. These cases must be dealt with sympathetically and you may face some hostility from individuals who have suffered a great deal of hostility in their homeland and in their new home and who feel they are being further victimised. The preferable approach is friendly support and a mentoring approach (matching a person with a suitable guide who will be a friend as well as giving practical advice).
An aspect of cat ownership which may be encountered in Thai communities is that of cat marriage where the cats are suitably attired and are married in a special ceremony. I have only encountered this in Thailand itself and I don't know how this would affect the neutering of pet cats. However, some Thai Buddhists may have a strong aversion to euthanasia, even of sick or injured animals.
It may seem odd to consider Americans an ethnic community, however the UK has had American communities on and around to USAF bases. On occasion, cat workers have been asked to remove feral cats on and around airbases and TNT/TTR is generally acceptable. Cats belonging to US military families may be left behind by families who return to the US. In general, the USAF did not pay for family pets to be transported to the US and many cats were left behind. While these cats had been generally well cared for, they had been kept in accordance with American traditions i.e. indoor-only and declawed. Indoor-only is an unusual mode of cat ownership in the UK and posed problems when rehoming the cats. Most such cats could not be rehabilitated to an indoor-outdoor lifestyle because of declawing (partial toe amputation), an operation illegal in the UK.
The best advice I can give to anyone working with pet or feral cats in ethnic communities is to find out about the local people you will be working with and their individual beliefs relating to cats, neutering and euthanasia.
In addition, learn a little about the community's culture, respect cultural and religious beliefs, avoid racial stereotypes, put aside personal prejudices (if you have any) and keep your cool!
This article is a work in progress and will be updated and added to as I gain experience and as friends from different backgrounds provide me with information.
With many thanks to Brij Sharma and family
(Right: Photo of the author with Brij's daughters Anu, Nisha and Payal and sons Krishan and Rohit, cat Raja unfortunately elsewhere at the time!
Below: On sisters day, when sisters traditionally tie a sacred thread [Rakhi] on the right arm of their brothers, Raja was honoured with a Rakhi worn like a collar. Raja means "king" and the cat apparently demands - and gets - treatment fit for a king.)