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



How do animals react when they are abandoned?

Dogs tend to pace up and down frantically, and they move from location to location trying to find a familiar spot. Cats, being the pragmatic creatures that they are, prioritise finding a hiding spot. That said, there are always exceptions to the rule. There was a cat whom we named Ms Jenny. She started tailing every passer-by, and it was Dr Tan’s cousin who found her and brought her to our shelter. She was a special one: she was extremely affectionate and well behaved. She’d sit beside you and observe you.

Should we paint pet abandoners with the same brush and say all of them are heartless?

An individual can only do so much kindness that he can afford to. Compare a person who has time and disposable income with a person who’s still fending for himself. We have to walk a mile in the latter’s shoes. Sometimes, an unexpected adversity may have happened: his wife or child has taken ill, and he can no longer shoulder the costs of keeping a pet. Therefore, he has no choice but to abandon his cat; it’s just that he doesn’t know there’s a better way, a way to get the animal situated somewhere.

What then is the ideal solution for owners who can no longer care for their pets, whatever their circumstances?

Search for a shelter and bring the animals there, where they have a chance of survival and finding a new loving home. Today, there are many animal shelters, and the directors know one another. I personally know Derrick Tan of Voices for Animals, Dr Siew Tuck Wah of Saving Our Street Dogs, and Mohan of Animal Lovers League. Even if our shelters are at full capacity, we know someone else who can step up to be a caretaker or fosterer.

Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727

Some of the animals arrive at your shelter terribly injured. One had his eye pierced. Another had his coat singed off. When the animals are in pain, isn’t it better to end their suffering?

Euthanasia is indeed one way of ‘ending their suffering’. My definition happens to mean healing them, keeping them well fed and then finding a forever home for them. Their suffering ends, and life begins. I follow the tenet that my mother had: ‘Animals cannot verbalise their thoughts; you don’t know if they want to live or die. So, never play God and make that choice for them.’ Maybe if a cat was severed in half because of an accident, and he was howling in pain, then yes, we have to make that difficult decision to end his suffering. Even for animals with debilitating diseases such as pancreatitis, they have that bright glint in their eyes. Having saved over thousands of animals, I believe I can determine their will to live just by looking into their eyes. Some show through their behaviours: they shower you with affection, and they yearn to be touched.

Take for example Lexie, a dog in our care that was paralysed. She kept soiling herself, so I had to change her sheets every two hours, and I had to console her whenever she cried. She was the reason why I had to endure sleepless nights. But her eyes showed me that she wanted to keep on living. Why did she scream at night? It’s because she craved comfort and wanted someone to be with her. Some had urged me to put her down, to end her suffering, but I said to them: ‘Could you bear to do it with those eyes staring back at you?’ I couldn’t.

There are animals who have given up, and they lie there and refuse to eat. My mom would console them and try to feed them, but they wouldn’t have any of it. That’s when my mom would bring them to the vet for a final checkup. But for such animals, they tend to go even before we can make that trip. When they decide they want to go, they will go very quickly.

What is the biggest challenge when it comes to saving the animals?

Money. As much as we want to provide the animals with all the medical interventions they need, we can only do so much due to monetary limitations. Once, a very ill cat was brought to us. We sought help for her, and before we knew it, we chalked up five-digit medical bills. My mom and I had to dip into our personal savings and overdraft our accounts. Luckily, a kind-hearted donor knew of our financial plight and helped pay for the bills. He advised us that we had to exercise prudence. This is why these days we ask for donations whenever a rescued animal requires medical services. That is at times met with ‘why can’t you afford two hundred dollars?’ If we keep tapping our resources for emergency treatments, sooner or later we won’t have the wherewithal to pay for other necessities, such as rental and food.

Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727

Being a veteran, Madam Lee must have seen her fair share of abuse. Was there any particular case she found hard to swallow?

Once, she received a tipoff about a senior man who was sexually abusing a stray out in the open. This was in the nineties, before the proliferation of smartphones, so we had to rely on eyewitness statements to track the abuser down. When she went on site, the perpetuator wielded a bludgeon and threatened to hit her if she took the dog from him. But with the help of a hired trapper, they managed to free the dog from his clutches. Surprisingly, the dog was very friendly, and allowed himself to be leashed by the trapper. The vet found that he had severe anal tearing: he would bleed all over. He could not control his bowel movements and would soil himself. His stools would leak. He needed bathing every day. We considered getting reconstructive surgery for him, but we could not afford the medical fees. Despite his harrowing experience, he lived a long life: he passed away at the age of thirteen.

How did this case affect her?

It only increased her motivation. It strengthened her resolve to help even more animals. She wanted to prevent this from happening to other animals. But realistically, we would never be able to thwart any form of abuse, only be there to save or heal the animals.

And what about you? Were there any cases over the years that stumped you?

About six years ago, we received a distress call from Anna, who is a rescuer. There were a few blocks of old flats on the selective en bloc redevelopment scheme. The residents had already moved out. There were many cats that were abandoned; some were even locked in the flats. Rescuers worked for hours to free the cats; stray feeders also went daily to bring them sustenance. Over a period of a month, the independent trappers all came together and saved about thirty cats. Things were looking up, until one day, Anna discovered a corpse that had been brutally mutilated and torn apart. She was crying hysterically over the phone.

Many people speculated that it was the work of a wild dog. But I conjectured that it would have to be the work of a pack of wild dogs, because a single dog wouldn’t have the brute strength to rip apart a living cat. It seemed to have been a tug of war between two dogs. The thing is, wild dogs are not that ferocious; they are more likely to chase after the cats. And even so, they would not have expended this much energy for nothing: they would have eaten it and not leave the carcass behind. All this pointed to mutilation for sport. At my mom’s behest, a few of the volunteers camped overnight at the block. It was around dawn when two ladies appeared, with two large, muscular attack dogs, in tow. They had come with the intention of letting loose the dogs and getting them to kill the cats. The volunteers took videos of them and got into a confrontation with the two ladies. The latter said it was none of their business. The videos were sent to the authorities. But sadly, nothing came out of it, no arrest, investigation and no news reports.

Now, Anna is a very kind soul. For people like her, I always hate that they have to witness such acts of senseless brutality. It affects their mind and spirit; they cannot eat or sleep. The image haunts them. There’s not much that we can do to help them process what they have seen: with time, they will recover on their own.

I can only hope that the good that all of you do outshines the bad that you guys have to see. As for the abused animals, how long do they take to warm up to human contact?

Some take a few months, some a few years. We have a cat that is still resistant to human touch after spending four years at our shelter.

Metta Cats & Dogs Sanctuary has been around for over two decades now, saving innumerable animals. Are you proud of this achievement?

I’m proud of my mom. I’ve always wondered about this: she would spend so much time with the animals, yet she’s always happy to see them the next day. And the animals reciprocated her affection: the cats would pur, lean towards and rub themselves against her. You know that a cat likes you when he or she stays with you or jumps into your lap.

Another thing I’ve always admired about her was her ability to stay calm even in the face of criticism. Whenever someone raised his voice at her, she was able to defuse the tension very quickly. It’s not that she was a persuasive person; she just knew how to keep her composure. It’s rare for individuals to be vindictive towards my mom; rare but it did happen. It’s something I couldn’t wrap my head around: knowing her history and what she did for animals, how could you regard my mom with such hatred? But she told me that the other person could be facing a ton of problems, and the latter was just venting her frustration on her, someone who was more tolerant of criticism.

Was there an incident?

My mom’s a Buddhist, so she used to place a few statutes in different corners, or paintings on the wall. She would also play meditative chants over the radio and burn incense. Now, she didn’t transform the place into a shrine; all told these things took up just a minuscule space. One time, a group of ex-volunteers just barged into our shelter and started tearing down the paintings, and snuffing out the incense by dumping them into pails of water. My mom was upset. I asked if she’d like for me to handle it: being a less reasonable and level-headed person, I’d be throwing them out (laughs). My mom just told me not to engage them, and that they were entitled to their own opinions.

But they did not stop there. They directed a barrage of criticism at us on the way we ran things. This particular cat sneezed, and they instructed my mom to bring him to the vet. My mother explained that there wasn’t a need to — it was raining and the cat was just feeling a little chilly. Like humans, we recover from these minor ailments on our own. And it was simply impossible for us — what with our long list of daily tasks to do — to bring the animals to the vet each and every time they had a minor ailment. Refusing to heed her words, they insisted on taking the cat to the vet, twice, and was dumbfounded each time when they realised there really wasn’t anything they could do but let the cat recover on his own.

Madam Lee Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0947
Madam Lee Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0947
Madam Lee Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0947
Photos of the late Madam Lee Siew Ying, published with permission from Metta Cats
Terry Lim Metta Cats and Dogs Sanctuary Singapore Abused Injured Abandon Animal Shelter -0727

I know from other founders of animal shelters that they too get unfairly harangued every day. I wonder where the brazenness and sense of entitlement of these armchair critics come from. What are some of the bizarre questions you have to field?

Situational questions — ‘How long is this cat going to live?’ I’m not a clairvoyant or a geomancer; I guess I could give you the average number of years that cats usually live? Someone once asked me: ‘Could you train the cat to learn fetch before you pass him to me?’ It’s rare for there to be cats that can or will learn tricks. I did have a litter of kittens once that knew to approach when I snapped my finger; but I think that was more of a natural response than a learnt skill. And of course, people would always ask about the availability of pedigree cats.

Even with my smattering of knowledge on animal behaviour, I know that cats think of themselves as the kings and queens, and learning tricks is beneath them.

Yes, and we’re their slaves.

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