Living in Korea was an amazing experience and it exposed me to so many different things and introduced different ideas and ways of life to me. Back in the UK when you see a street cat outside you presume that the cat has a home and they usually look in a good condition.
The cats in Korea aren’t so lucky, when you see them outside you know that they have either been abandoned or they are wild. They need to survive on the streets and make it on their own. They don’t have it easy and they continually go between the stage of pregnancy and then of rearing their kittens or constantly mating. They look battered and haggard and they rarely live past 3-4 years.
There are caretakers , random people who take on the cats and provide them with food and if they are lucky provide water during the scorching summer months. It is not uncommon to find dead animals everywhere, especially on the roads where they have been hit by cars or they have dropped down. These cats have practically the worst existence imaginable.
They face cruelty on a daily basis- it is normal for people to put down poison for them and to throw rocks and kick stones at them. The cats are street smart for the most part and avoid all human contact, they come out when the streets are empty and forage for food. There was also a situation in my city where a man trapped over a hundred cats and cruelly made them into traditional medicine. Another cat feeder was killed when feeding her colony as someone threw a rock out of a window and hit her on the head and killed her.
Of all the things I miss in Korea my street cats are probably way up high there. They became part of my family and I had names for each of them. I knew their personalities and their quirks and I loved them for it.
I never wanted to adopt stray cats. It was not my scene- I didn’t like cats and I didn’t like scary street cats who didn’t like me…These cats hissed at me, wouldn’t come close to me and were extremely ungrateful.
It all started with Goyangy (Pepper Potts) and then Belle and then suddenly I ended up with a ton of street cats that I was responsible for. There is very little that you can do to help these cats, they aren’t friendly, they don’t need homes all they need is shelter and food and water. Life is extremely hard on them and it is hard to find a way to help.
Belle led me to TNR, I couldn’t bear to watch her suffer each summer. While I was trapping her I came across a few others who climbed into my trap. It was at that moment I got the bug. I could make a difference to those cats’ lives and I could change their lives for them.
Then it became an addiction- I couldn’t go somewhere new without scoping it for stray cats. I noticed more and more cats near where I taught. I saw more cats suffering the more I opened my eyes. The more I saw the more I realized that I needed to help as many as I could. I set my sights at fifty.
I kept feeding the other cats in the meantime, I had to make sure that they were all taken care of even the ones who were proving hard to trap. While I was rehabbing some other cats I heard of someone else who had a huge colony of cats that he was taking care of. I went the first time he trapped two cats and helped him take them to my vet. When he left I took over his colony and kept going back to fix them all. It wasn’t easy as it was over 20minutes away. Chris however was amazing, he would drive me there and either pick me up or wait in the car reading his book.
We took the cats in and they were then released back outside. They thrived once neutered and I slowly built up the numbers.
I knew the risks of TNR and I knew that not every cat I trapped would have a positive result. There was the chance that not all of them would make it on the operating table. My concern was that a lot of the cats who showed up were in bad condition, we were then about to do surgery on them straight away without any fixing up
But, I kept going. We lost one and with another it was touch and go but he survived, but the one we lost hit me hard. His name was Riley- all my street cats had a name. He had shown up with Belle one day. She had found him with his eye hanging out. He showed up on my door step and I had tried to catch him but failed. I kept trying to catch him but I wasn’t successful. He then became best friends with Nora and they buddied up. He took care of her and would become her carer and provider and then later her kittens’ dad. When he died I wanted to give up, I couldn’t face risking another cat but then I thought of the kittens’ I had found dead and the others I saw starving to death.
I knew what I had to do and I kept going. I decided to trap in an area which I had seen which was extremely over populated. I started taking three traps and trying to fill them all. I set three traps in a row on a certain street and would walk between each street checking on them. As soon as I caught one I would throw a sheet over it and put it in the car and wait for the others to fill up. Most nights I only caught one or two and I would then have to lift up the cage to see if the cat was lactating. If she was lactating then I would have to release her with a heavy heart.
Halfway through trapping I ended up changing vets and the new vet I found was incredible. He had done Belle’s surgery and he was very diligent. If the cat came in sick he would administer meds and treatment. For feral street cats he would make sure that they were as healthy as possible before allowing me to release them.
I carried on trapping. I would go out in my pjs or in tracksuit bottoms and try to catch cats. I would eat my dinner sat on steps. When it was super hot in August I would walk in between the shops buying iced drinks at each place. I would literally have sweat pouring off my face and the extra exertion of carrying a trap with a cat in didn’t make it pleasant.
Whenever I caught a cat it felt like a victory, I was always so pleased. I knew that the following morning I would take the cat and they would have a life changing surgery and a chance at living a few more years safely. I cleaned up each area, I was determined to neuter the main population from each area and it got harder. There were days when I wouldn’t trap anything and others when I would leave with three full traps.
I found a group of students who were caring for some former street cats. They had two adult cats and a kitten. I asked them if we were able to neuter them and prevent any other pregnancies from them. I did them, I was pleased to stop the mum from having those issues again.
I had four different areas I was working and then I found a dog in the street. The dog had an owner and belonged to the garden center. When I walked into the garden center I found another dog who was in a horrific condition and when I walked through a different way I noticed a sea of kittens.
There were two mother cats nursing their kittens. Each of them had around three or four kittens. There were also older kittens clearly from another litter. They were cute, super cute but I didn’t want to take them away. They appeared to be owned as there was food and even a cat litter box. But, they seemed to be living as feral cats despite being friendly.
I eventually got around to speaking to the owner of the garden center and tried to persuade him that it would be a good idea to let us tnr them all. I took a friend of mine who translated for me, she helped me persuade him and finally he gave us permission to neuter whoever we could catch. I ended up catching all but three males, they were older and kept wandering. There was no hope with regards to catching them, not with the limited time I had. It was too hard and it was more important that I caught the females and got them sorted before they filled up the garden center even more.
I spent the summer there in the mornings before I would go to work. I would get there early, before the owner was even up. I caught as many as I could and then when dripping in sweat I would take them into the vet. The garden center was practically a greenhouse and the temperature was in its thirties with high humidity. I would then rush home and grab a shower and rush off to work. It was horrific but I didn’t want to quit, if I had taken a break he wouldn’t have let me come back.
While I was there I spent time rehabbing his chained dog outside. It was a beautiful husky that was approximately 14kg if that. I have never seen such a skinny dog in all my life nor one that was so scared. He said he had found him in a field- a story which I doubted but I didn’t want to argue over it. I instead took high protein food and different high calorie treats. The owner fed him the food I provided and I took him snacks as well, he gained a tiny amount but it didn’t help. The dog was still skin and bones. Then every time I heard a trap close I would cover it and place it in the shade to prepare to take them to the vet.
Trapping was my personal challenge. While in Korea I managed to trap 46 cats. I didn’t hit my fifty despite in my last weeks desperately trying to ensure that I did. I kept trying but it didn’t work. I ended up on 46 cats and 7 kittens which were too young to be snipped.
During that time I rehomed at least ten of them. It was a rollercoaster I would have to stay in areas late at night on my own and wait for cats to climb in the traps. I would often be either cold or too hot. I had a limited time so the weather wasn’t able to be a concern for me. I spent hours and hours pacing up and down streets often lingering in the shadows. I loved every minute of it. It was the most instantly gratifying experience I had. Each time I helped one of them I considered the impact that it would have. I saw a graph of the numbers that cats could produce and it stuck in my mind.
Out of all the things I did in Korea TNR was the best part of it I believe. I moaned and I hated it a lot of the time as the cats on the street didn’t deserve it. We had former cat mill cats, pedigrees from pet shops thrown away, kittens struggling to survive and goodness knows how many females with pyometra. They all didn’t deserve the cruel fate they had been dealt. By doing something as little as neutering them we were able to change it a little. A lot of them probably didn’t survive what we would class as long fulfilling lives but for the ones who have I would like to think that their sterilization helped them with that.
Nothing will ever compare to seeing an adult female cat safe and happy and not pregnant or desperately hunting for scraps. Or watching two neutered males play together in the park instead of having to fight for territory. My personal favourite though is looking out at a park and noting that each cat in it has an ear tip and knowing that you have stabilized that area, if only for a short time.
Those little ear tips that so many people don’t like symbolize everything- hope, freedom and most of all that someone cared for them enough to help them.