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



Are there times when you get disappointed?

There’s this hopeful joy when a suitable candidate comes in and we’re able to match a suitable cat or dog to him. But adoptions fall through all the time. Not just at the last minute, but even after the signing of paperwork, adopters may still reject their new companions. Once, a couple said that they just couldn’t handle their adoptee after only a few hours with him. I had to stop everything I was doing, drive all the way from the outskirts of Singapore to the city centre, to retrieve the cat.

I get the buyer’s remorse, but isn’t it basic courtesy that adopters who changed their minds bring the animals back to the shelter?

We don’t take that chance. We’re afraid they would simply abandon the animals. The animals could get into harm’s way. And by the time we find out, it would be too late.

You give animals that passed away a funeral-like ritual. What is the significance of this dignified send-off?

My mother believed that all lives must be respected. She felt that they had a sad fate, a life where they were controlled. They had no true freedom. Even at the shelter, they were caged. Some of them never found or would never find a home, so they would be stuck with us till they die. She felt it was unfair, so she thought that a proper send-off was the least we could do.

I came across scientific journals that state that the brain operates for another twelve hours even after we draw our last breaths. When I shared this with my mother, she thought we should lay the animals down and let them be for a while. We spread incense powder over them, which has a nice sandalwood aroma, to stifle the odour of rigor mortis. They are laid with flowers, then wrapped in a white blanket, before being cremated.

On that note of freedom, like your late mother, you tirelessly work eighteen-hour days, seven days a week. Do you get jaded, or even caregiver burnout?

My mom used to say to me: ‘Rest when you’re tired, carry on when you can.’ She would sacrifice mealtimes, surviving just on coffee. When things do get busy, with the allotment of time, I’ll swap things considered to be trivial for important matters, such as attending to animals in palliative care. Laundry will be postponed. The cubicles will get a quick clean. But yes, I do experience burnout, as did my mom. Despite being the strong person that she was, my mom once had a nervous breakdown that she couldn’t shake off for two days.

What triggered it?

It was the move from our first shelter at Pasir Ris to our current one at Lim Chu Kang. It was around 2017. The original plan was to wait till the renovations at this current shelter to complete before moving in. But I was impelled to make a hasty decision. The reason was a large tree had fallen and broken the fence at our first shelter. And the shelter bordered a forest. Pythons, being the instinctive hunters that they are, came slithering. In just that year alone, we caught thirteen pythons, each large enough to consume a human child. The animals were spooked. Sometimes we would walk into a cubicle, and see a cat staring intently at a spot, and we knew something was wrong. For the safety of the animals, we had to move before we were fully ready.

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

After my mom informed the landlord of our intention to move, the latter abruptly gave us six days to evict. He also wanted an extra of five hundred dollars for every day that we delayed. Delays are inevitable with any move; what’s more we had no prior experience with it. The move was also highly stressful for the animals. Our funds were dwindling — we had to pay the movers, we had to pay an upfront fee of twelve thousand dollars to secure the tenancy of our current premise. On moving day, we were working well into the wee hours. And then the electricity went out. My mom was panicking and screaming in the dark.

I suspect by then she already had stomach cancer, which would go undiagnosed until two years later. I say this because by 2019, she was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer, so the timeline fits. During this period, whenever her health issues acted up, she would simply self-medicate by imbibing Gaviscon. So, I think the stress of the move, and her health problems — even though she brushed them off — contributed to her breakdown.

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

Might her lifestyle have been a contributing factor to her cancer?

It’s possible. There were days when she’d just have one meal, and survive on coffee. I’ve latched on to her lifestyle too. There are so many tasks to complete, so there isn’t any time to think but to just get down and cross them off the list. It is a trade-off. But because of my mom’s health problems, I’ve become more cognisant of my habits. On days that I have only one meal, I try to make up for it by having two or three meals the next, or snack in between. But it’s easy to fall back into old habit patterns.

The sacrifices that both of you have made — it’s truly noble.

Some people have said that of me. But I don’t consider it a plus point. I’m damaging my own health by sustaining on only one meal a day. I’ve had gout since I was young, so I abstain from alcohol. I’m not a sweet-toothed. Yet I was diagnosed with type two diabetes — where did that come from? Thankfully, type two diabetes can be maintained by having a balanced diet. If I had to go for dialysis, I’d have long given up on running the shelter.

Are there any plans to hire someone to take some of the load off your shoulders?

There is hope of hiring someone, but the prospects of actually finding someone are slim. Our current shelter is located in a remote area; you need to take a private charter bus to reach here. Being a charity organisation, we cannot afford to pay someone a reasonable let alone a competitive pay. Having a salaried employee would be taxing on the monthly expenses. And the work itself is laborious: having to care for up to eighty animals, day in, day out, is no easy feat for anyone to take on.

Long hours, back-aching and perhaps even thankless work — what spurs you on to continue Metta Cats? Is it a love for the animals?

I’d say what drives me now is a sense of responsibility. Of course, I feel the euphoria — anyone would feel a natural happiness when a cat rubs against him or sees a dog wagging his tail playfully. But I soldier on because of this sense of responsibility that I have towards the animals in my care.

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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.