PARUNG, Indonesia: A petite, withered woman in her 80s arrived at Rumah Kucing Parung (Parung House of Cats), a one-storey house decorated in neon yellow paint in the semi-rural area of Parung, one-and-a-half-hour drive away from Jakarta.
She came in her son's white van, carrying 10 cats of varying sizes.
The shelter’s founder Dita Agusta said the lady was moving in with his son in the city of Bandung, after years of living alone in Jakarta. The son, however, told his mother that she can only bring two of her 20 cats.
“This is her second visit,” 46-year-old Agusta said of the octogenarian after she took the woman on a tour of the shelter to greet the eight cats she had handed over on a previous visit.
“The woman insisted on accompanying her son to the shelter even though it is a long drive away from her home. She was worried that her son would throw away her cats if she hadn’t come along.”
Agusta has heard about similar stories before. Since converting a portion of her family home into a shelter for stray and abandoned cats five years ago, the mother of three has heard of every possible excuse for pet owners to give up their feline companions.
“There were people who gave up their cats because of their neighbours, because they moved to a new house which doesn’t allow pets, disagreement between newly-weds, disagreement between parents and their children, or simply because they could no longer afford to keep the pets around,” she told CNA.
The number of people who gave up their cats to the shelter has increased significantly because of COVID-19. “Before the pandemic, 80 per cent of the cats here were rescued strays. Now, I would say it’s 50 (per cent stray), 50 (per cent domesticated cats),” she said.
Every week, Rumah Kucing Parung would welcome five to 10 newcomers, straining the 644 sq m shelter which also doubles as Agusta’s family home.
“Meanwhile, the donation has dwindled because of COVID-19. Everyone is affected,” she said, adding that the money the shelter receives today is barely enough to buy food and medication for the cats. She has to pay the salary for the six staffers employed at the shelter out of her own pocket.
With so many newcomers arriving each week, Agusta has lost count of the number of cats in the shelter. “More than 300,” she estimated.
LIVING WITH 300 CATS
Agusta, her husband and their three children occupy an 80 sq m space which they share with a handful of their own cats.
Their front porch is dedicated to newcomers and those which need special attention, including one former stray cat which was recovering from an eye cancer surgery. There are also kittens, thrown away on the streets and abandoned, which have a variety of injuries and infections.
It can take up to two weeks for newcomers to adjust to life in the shelter, Agusta said, and the majority of their time is spent in a cage. After they grow accustomed to their new environment, the cats are then transferred inside where they have to learn how to live with hundreds of other felines.
With the exception of those which require special care and a few troublemakers, the cats are free to roam the semi-enclosed backyard, shaded by long canopies which provide protection from the sun and rain and prevent the felines from climbing out of the shelter.
Agusta and the six staffers employed by Rumah Kucing Parung are always busy preparing food, giving medications and vitamins, tending to sick cats and scooping cat poop.
Agusta’s husband Muhammad Lutfi said he initially wanted to separate the family’s house from the cat shelter.
“We used to have our own space and the cats have theirs. But we all learn how to coexist as more and more cats come in. Now, we have cats in our living room and in our bedrooms. One of the cats broke my 50-inch television once. I once kept birds but the cats ate them. But what can you do? They are cats,” the 52-year-old told CNA.
“I learned everything from my wife on how to be selfless and compassionate towards other life forms.”
Lutfi said over the years he had become more and more involved with the shelter. He quit his job as a permit and license consultant in 2017 to help his wife run the shelter.
He also runs a small fish farm, profit of which is used to provide for his family and keep the shelter afloat.
The couple’s two children now work at the shelter while another one is still in school.
Agusta did not become a cat lover until the year 2000 at the age of 26. “At the time, my children were old enough to have pets. We have always loved animals. We already owned a few birds and a few rabbits and we thought a cat would be a great addition to the family,” she said.
The family adopted a purebred cat which years later had children and died of old age.
It was actually Agusta’s husband who rescued the family’s first strays in 2003. “He found two kittens in a gutter near a mosque. The mother was nowhere in sight. He felt sorry for them and brought them home,” she recounted.
Her husband’s action and the kittens’ presence struck a chord with Agusta.
“My love for cats grew. I felt that stray cats like these deserve my attention and care. They are the ones who need my help the most,” she said.
Since then, Agusta would often rescue stray cats, particularly those she thinks would not survive on their own on the streets. “Those who need to be rescued are victims of hit-and-run, cats who are sick and have disabilities and kittens without a mother. I wouldn’t think twice about bringing them home with me,” she said.
And throughout the years, she has seen all kinds of medical conditions and abusive behaviours inflicted on cats.
“I have rescued cats with disabilities or injuries, cats with nerve damage, cats with cancer or virus infection, victims of abuse, cats which were beaten and even scalded by hot oil,” Agusta said, adding that she eventually became friends with fellow cat lovers and rescuers she met online.
But as the number of cats grew, Agusta’s neighbours began complaining.
“Our old house was just 60 sq m. I bought this property in 2014 and I initially wanted this property to be a farm, a place for my business,” Lutfi said, adding that by that time the family had 30 cats. “Because the neighbours started complaining, the first thing I built were two rooms for all of our cats. We built the rest of the house over the next seven months.”
Agusta’s friends soon caught wind of this vast new property the family had acquired and asked her if they could put a few of their rescued cats at the new location.
“They knew that this place is big and the neighbourhood is quite safe and friendly towards cats. One by one they asked if they can place their rescued cats here. I can’t remember who gave their first cats but it was definitely a fellow cat lover,” she said.
“Eventually the number grew. I consulted my family on the possibility of turning our home into a shelter for cats in need of a home and they agreed. Initially I didn’t intend to make this place a shelter, so I can’t pinpoint when exactly this shelter was established. But it was definitely in 2015.”
In exchange for putting their rescued cats at Rumah Kucing Parung, Agusta’s friends helped in promoting the shelter and finding donors and potential adopters.
HOME FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES
Agusta has been trying hard to get people to adopt her cats. She enrolled her cats in cat shows and various contests, and many of her cats won in the crossbred category, including former stray cats who once lived on the streets.
“I want to show that with a little love and care, even former stray cats can be good pets,” she said.
The pandemic has put the contests and cat shows on a hiatus, but even when the contests were in full swing, only three or four cats from the shelter managed to find a new home each week.
“Just like any other shelter, the adoption rate is low. The majority (of the shelter population) will die here. We can make life comfortable for them. At least here, they wouldn’t die from starvation or animal abuse,” she said.
“The problem of stray and abandoned cats can be traced back to overpopulation. We need to educate people about the importance of sterilisation to control the population of cats.”
Agusta said she realised that educating the public about the need for sterilisation is an uphill battle. Until the cat population is controlled, she knows the number of cats coming into her shelter will only grow over time.
With her shelter becoming overcrowded with cats, Agusta is looking to add another 200 sq m wing next to the existing shelter.
“There are still many cats out there in need of our help,” she said.