Alden Boon

The Epitome of Selflessness: Metta Cats Director Terry Lim on Saving Stray Animals, Eighteen-hour Days and Carrying on His Late Mother’s Legacy

18/03/2022

Clad in his typical ensemble of black shirt, denim jeans and waterproof boots, Terry Lim is ready for another day of a punishing eighteen-hour routine. His forearms bear the pink marks of old wounds; fresh raised scratches overlap them. He enters the cubicle occupied by Bubbles, an eight-month-old mother cat whose petiteness and slenderness belie a feisty attitude. He herds her newborns into a carrier. Then he gets to work, hosing the tiled floor down, and with a squeegee expels the water out of it. Next, he gives the wooden shelf a thorough wipe down. This is only the first of sixty-four cubicles that he has to clean daily.

The dimly lit, seven-thousand-square-foot compound exudes an air of rusticity, held together by corrugated metal panels and lattice grills, some of which were welded by Terry himself. Blotches of azure-blue paint have come off the walls in the cubicles; cages corroded by rainwater creak and clang. Here, sibling cats share the same cubicle. Others idle their time away ensconced in their hammocks. Feral cats or cats with contagious illnesses are sequestered. Silence is a commodity here: dogs in the adjoining space bark relentlessly at seemingly nothing. Not an hour into his duty and Terry’s shirt is filled with gossamer fur, as he lifts the cats and gets them out of the way, sneaking in cuddles every so often. This is life at Metta Cats & Dogs Sanctuary.

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Terry with Bubbles, an eight-month-old kitten who has given birth to a litter of four kittens.

Terry, tell us about the beginnings of Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary.

Back in the eighties, people were habitually dumping their pets when they didn’t want them anymore. When it came to the nomenclature, my mom would name the animals she rescued after the places where she found them, or after the people who brought them to her. One of the first animals she rescued was a spitz along the now Central Expressway. She named him ‘Freeway’ — that was what expressways were colloquially called back then.

For years, as an independent rescuer and stray feeder, she’d send abandoned and injured animals to a local shelter whose protocols she wasn’t privy to. In 1999, she brought a mother cat who was nursing a litter of days-old kittens to the shelter. The receptionist at the front counter urged her not to bring them there and to find an alternative. Out of curiosity, she asked for the reason. It was then she learnt that space at the shelter was limited, and that the animals would be put down after two weeks to a month if they didn’t get rehomed. The revelation shocked her. She started backtracking, recalling the faces of the animals she had sent to the shelter, wondering how many she had inadvertently sent to their deaths. It took a long time for her to get over it: she wore this perpetual remorseful look on her face. Together with her good friend Dr Tan Chek Wee, who today handles our website and social media platforms, she set up Metta Cats & Dogs Sanctuary, a no-kill halfway house for animals in need.

There weren’t many shelters back then to model ours after. We kind of just jumped right in. While we had our own home pets, we didn’t have any prior experience taking care of twenty, thirty animals, and animals in poor shape at that. My mom was an insurance cum property agent, and later in life she became an administrator in a clinic. After work, she would devote close to eight hours a day at the shelter. Her days were very long, and she slept only three to four hours a day.

Did Madam Lee have a natural affinity towards animals?

My mom was born in Kelantan, one of those quaint towns in Malaysia with very tight-knit communities. Because her childhood house was nestled near a forest, she was exposed to all sorts of wildlife animals. She was especially fascinated with foxes and even wanted one as a pet. My grandfather however opposed the idea of having a pet — he ran a coffeeshop, so he had to keep things clean. My mom always had a soft spot for animals, even rats and snakes. When the predators encroached into human territory, she always advocated sparing their lives and moving them back to their natural habitats where they could be safe.

It seems that Madam Lee had a gentleness when it came to animals. Was she like that as well as a mother? 

She was extremely strict with me. She brought me up by wielding not one but two canes (laughs). But she had to. I was a mischievous kid. One time when I was four, I got off the pram and put my right arm under the escalator belt and got stuck. That earned me a dislocated arm. Many times, we would be watching television and I just had to pull the table runner and make a mess of things. My father left us when I was about eight years old. So, my mother was the only family I had.

Dr Tan shared with me that she used to live the life of a privileged lady. But she felt that her days were filled with meaningless gossiping and socialising, and that she was wasting her life away. After she decided to change and find her purpose in life, she downsized our home to a three-room flat. Every day, cat fur and other allergens would trigger her status asthmaticus; one time a severe attack almost took her life. But she fought hard, because she had to live for her cats and dogs (and me), and thankfully she managed to pull through.

What an indomitable spirit, which I believe has rubbed off on you as well. Take us through a typical day at the shelter. What is the upkeep like?

During the weekdays, it’s mostly a one-man show. Round the clock, I have to keep the place maintained. There is a total of sixty-four cubicles across seven thousand square feet of space. Each round of full cleaning, from washing the walls to scrubbing the floor, takes about thirty minutes. The floors must be kept clean, and they must be dried after a wash, if not there is a risk of the cats getting a fungal infection. Then there’s the washing of food bowls and sheets, and disposal of their paper trays. These tasks are on top of having to feed the animals, medicate the sick ones, and also walk the dogs. It’s easily an eighteen-hour day.

When we first began, we had a few volunteers. But for over fifteen years, the running of the shelter fell squarely on my mother’s and my shoulders. After my mom passed away in 2019, I thought that I could no longer do it alone. So, I called a few ex-volunteers up and asked if they would be willing to help out. And they rallied to establish systems. Genine Loo and Fiona Yuen, for example, help with the administrative matters.

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'Structurally, our current shelter isn’t very sturdy, and the setup isn't ideal. Part of it is exposed to the elements, so rain gushes in during a thunderstorm. Metal and water are never a good thing. Fences and grilles have become rusty.'
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How do you rescue animals that are caught in life-threatening predicaments?

We have to hire expert professionals to trap them. Injured or abused animals are difficult cases to handle. They are still out in the open and they are roaming about. They are extremely skittish. And they can be ferocious or feral. They were harmed by humans (or other animals) or were knocked down by cars. So, any contact by human hands they will retaliate and go berserk. And the act of trapping itself is distressing for them — it creates fear. First they were harmed, now they are being trapped. How my mom used to do it was she would let the animals settle in, then approach them, talk to them, feed them and dress their wounds. Whenever wound dressing was unsuccessful, she would bring the animals to the vet. For serious cases such as broken limbs, she’d bring the animals straight to the vet.

Help us understand the psyche. After spending a fortune on them, and spending years with them, why do owners abandon their pets?

Most people naturally want their personal homes to be spick and span, and nice smelling. Animals, before they are trained, disrupt this. Cats are convenience creatures, so they tend to pick a spot near their marked territories to urinate and excrete. They could go on an expensive or sentimental rug. This then becomes an issue. My mother would sit the pet owners down and try to mediate and be an advocate for the cats. Sometimes, the solution is just as simple as relocating the litter bins to the areas where the cats hang out.

When it comes to dogs, time commitment is an issue. Dogs demand a lot of attention from their humans. They also need to be walked every day. Being cooped up in an enclosed area is not good for them: they need constant exercise, if not they will gain weight, and in turn their overall joint health will deteriorate. An active dog requires at least four to five hours of one-to-one attention. Many would-be pet owners misjudge this, and in turn their dogs become a liability.

And of course, with old age comes the health problems and the risk of chronic illnesses. Animals tend to get abandoned between the ages of eight and ten. Many owners abandon cats by leaving them at the void decks. Singapore’s culture is such that around the neighbourhoods, there will always be stray feeders — so by leaving the cats at the void decks, the owners are giving them a fighting chance at survival. Some of them would buy canned food and get the stray feeders to give it to the cats. This is a collective truth pieced together by feeders’ accounts and even confessions of ex-owners who have given up their cats.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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