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Animal politics

WHEN I became chancellor I was prepared to deal with students, with faculty, even with supernatural spirits that supposedly inhabit Diliman’s many nooks and crannies. Frankly, I didn’t quite expect that I was also expected to deal with cats and dogs and assorted animals.

Last Friday I had a meeting with UP Diliman’s University Student Council (USC) and officials from college councils. As the meeting came to a close, after a discussion of a host of issues (from tuition fees to dormitory spaces), I asked if there were other urgent concerns.

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The USC chair, said yes, there was one. The students had learned that one of Diliman’s institute directors had asked to have stray cats removed from her premises and the students, together with an animal welfare group on campus, were protesting, saying this meant “sure death” to the cats.

A few months back I had imposed a moratorium on the rounding up of cats because we were looking into alternative solutions, so I simply called the offices concerned to put a halt to the planned roundup.

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But the appeals have continued, even branching out into a change.org petition.

My first degree was in veterinary medicine, so you would think it should be easy handling animal politics; but, no, vet school didn’t quite prepare me for that dimension of university life.

You’d be amazed at the number of stakeholders with cats.  You have the cat lovers who are ever vigilant about the treatment of the cats. But in come wildlife protection groups saying that the cats are killing off the wild birds.

Then we have people like the institute director who requested the rounding up of cats, rightly pointing out that the cats are endangering human health, especially because her institute has an outdoor cafeteria and the cats end up jumping on the tables to ask for food. Her institute also has a hostel, and the cats have been known to get into the hostel premises looking for food.

‘Built Environments’

I know that all over the world, not just in the Philippines and developing countries but even in the United States, Australia and western European countries, animal politics has come about because of the emergence of “Built Environments” or BEs.

I intentionally used capitals there because BE has become a hot topic.  We all know of the natural environment— land, flora and fauna—and its importance.  But through the years, we’ve come to recognize BE has become just as important.

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Especially because of urbanization, these BEs can have very dense populations. I was visiting a hotel last week and asked one of the managers how many rooms and occupants they had. Full occupancy, she said, could easily mean 1,500 hotel guests, all in one building. Think of our condos. Think of our universities.

Where there are people, there will be dogs and cats. In UP Diliman alone, we vaccinated 3,500 dogs recently and we suspect there are many more that were not brought in for their rabies shot.

And the cats? We really don’t know because cats in Philippine setting are never quite pets. Fiercely independent, they own humans and habitats rather than the other way around.  Humans tolerate them because they control rats and vermin, but don’t usually bond with them. In a university setting though, the irony is, your more upper-class students, sometimes even the staff, do “adopt” the cats, but only in school. Because they feed the cats, word spreads around (it’s actually the scent of cats and food), attracting more cats especially from our informal settler population.

But there’s still so much we don’t understand about cats.  I’ve had several interesting conversations with our biology experts, Dr. Jonathan Anticamara and Dr. Carmela Española, both of whom are cat lovers but also understand we can’t just allow cats to roam around. On their own, they started doing a census of the cats on campus, and created a shelter for cats in their area. They’ve observed that, among the cats, it’s the males who roam around; the females tend to stay put, raising their kittens and guarding their territory.

Yes, they do behave like humans, don’t they?

Now I’m expanding the biology professors’ activities (which they funded on their own) to make it a formal applied research project to look for answers to important questions. Are the cats really going after the wild birds? Are they controlling rats and pests? What diseases might they spread (including those that might come from rats)?

I’m bringing in social scientists to look at the human interactions. Who are the cat lovers, and how might they go beyond just loving cats and take a lead in being more responsible about the cats?  People have to wag, oops I meant, walk the talk and see that caring for cats is more than feeding them. Compassion And Responsibility for Animals, the animal welfare group on campus, has been doing seminars where they actually tell canteen owners and customers NOT to feed the cats.  If there are designated areas, and times for feeding, the cats will not go into the canteens and hostels.

Cats out; more cats in

The bottom line, too, in dealing with cats in urban environments is, we have to be conscious of a basic principle in biology and ecology: Nature abhors a vacuum.  If you round up the cats and dump them elsewhere (which would be horribly irresponsible, reflecting a “not in my backyard” cop-out solution), or have them put down, it doesn’t mean you’ve gotten rid of them in your area.  New ones will come in to fill the vacuum.

And once they claim territory, they breed quickly. Cats can start reproducing as early as 5 months of age, and can produce from six to 24 kittens a year.

Which is why any program to deal with urban cats must include sterilization. There is a trap-neuter-release model which has been used in many countries, in public places and in university campus.  Here you neuter or spay the cats and then leave a certain number in designated places. They will not reproduce and, being very territorial, they will not allow new cats to come in.

All this requires careful study—and planning. And we can learn much from centuries-old cat sanctuaries, like the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary in one of the ruins of Rome (see romancats.com for more information) and a cat island near Bangkok.

So I do get slightly irritated as well when petitions and Facebook posts come out being overzealous about protecting the cats, as if it were as simple as allowing cats free rein. Unscientific approaches will not work; in the end, if people feel overwhelmed by the problem, they will exterminate the cats on their own.

Yes, animal politics does bear too many similarities to human politics.

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TAGS: adopt, animals, cats, Diliman, dogs, opinion, Pets, up diliman
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