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A Saigon Restaurant Poisoned Dozens of Stray Cats. What Happened to Those That Survived?

Almost 10 months ago, my life was turned upside down as our household welcomed a new feline member.

I call the little munchkin Noir (French for black) because he has a pitch-dark coat of fur, just like that nook inside the bush where somebody discarded him. Before him, I never thought of taking care of anything besides myself, but thanks to Noir’s helpless meows and piercing bright eyes, I reluctantly took on the parental role for a furry baby. Since our fateful encounter, I also started paying attention to the existence of other cats like Noir, but living much tougher lives.

They hide under the shades at parking lots, meander in between the legs of nhậu tables to seek food scraps, live like nomads on people’s altruism, and often have short lifespans because of accidents and illnesses. Of course, being a stray anywhere in the world comes with scores of challenges, but right in front of my eyes, the tales of stray Saigonese cats is a vivid sight of misery. The perpetual clash between history and modernity in a rapidly developing city nudges the cats between slaughterhouses and rescue homes, between kidnappers and good Samaritans. Some slip through the cracks of our society and never return.

Two tabbies at a parking area.

My concern for Saigon’s stray cats compelled me to reach out to some local cat rescue philanthropists to delve deeper into the dynamic between city inhabitants and felines and seek some answers for my own personal conundrum: how and when will Saigon stop being a town of stray cats?

In limbo between ethical and legal shortcomings

“The existence of strays is because of humans.”

“When I heard that people were gathering to dispose of over 20 cat carcasses, I was beside myself. The first thing that popped in my mind was going around, finding the [poisoned] food and throwing it away, so those that haven’t eaten it might survive. I asked my neighbor about the ginger cat and her babies, because she just gave birth a few days ago. When he shook his head and said ‘they all died,’ I burst into tears,” Hải Yến recounts to me that haunting moment on May 27 when over 50 stray cats at the 151 Đồng Khởi Apartment Complex were deliberately poisoned by a restaurant in the same building. Yến runs a shop in the complex and had been taking care of the strays.

The cat massacre caused an uproar, and every detail of stray presence at the old apartment leading to that fateful day was dissected by netizens who debated hygiene issues, cat smell, loud noises and the struggles of the offending restaurant owners. The narrative seemed to be subtly rationalizing that “the killing was an inevitable solution, we seek your understanding.” Hardly any media report mentioned how the ill-fated cats lived before their demise, or why there was such a significant population of stray animals at one of Saigon’s most prominent heritage buildings.

The trap Yến often uses to catch stray cats. This model is often used by animal activists in major metropolises around the world to capture stray cats as part of the Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) program, designed to help curtail unsustainable cat reproduction.

In reality, the cruel poisoning incident is just the straw that broke the camel’s back, exemplifying the worsening conflict in a municipality that’s growing with both humans and animals. The controversy of whether apartment complexes should allow pets is still an ongoing debate. Who has the rights to determine if the pets can stay or must be evicted? And if eviction is due, where can they move to?

Furthermore, Saigon doesn’t have a dedicated animal control department, so is sorely lacking in sound measures to tackle roaming pets and strays. This mounting pressure gives rise to annoyance and hostility among those who don’t want to be near pets. When a tragedy happens, stray animals are nearly always brought up as a nuisance, or even malicious presence, while the root cause can be traced to human sensibility (or lack thereof), and the dilly-dallying of policymakers.

The tale of the Đồng Khởi strays is not an exception . “This apartment block has always housed cats. So many generations of residential heads have wanted to get rid of them, but never managed to,” Yến, who’s been there for 11 years, explains. “Cats might be frightened by people, but the mice here, they just hang out on your chair. After the cats moved in, the mice were all gone. Anybody who lives here knows that, they start feeding them too, and see them as members of the building.”

The corner where Yến often puts down food for the cats.

It’s hard to get a clear answer for the question of whether the furry residents are “permitted” to live there or not, but no one has the authority to provide for the strays either. So Yến and other cat-loving inhabitants took on the role of impromptu cat guardians: feeding them, hiring cleaning services, and getting them fixed as much as possible to maintain a balance somehow. The cats, to repay the hospitality, help with pest control and welcome new visitors. Even then, some residents were “heartless enough to kill my kids,” according to Yến.

To add insult to injury, even after the online furor, the perpetrators did not meet any punishment, administrative or otherwise, because harming stray animals is not penalized by local law. The cat overpopulation conundrum will not be addressed either, because that is a citywide issue that whatever happened to one building won’t have much sway over. “It only needs from three to six months for the cats from other neighborhoods to migrate over here. On the Nguyễn Huệ side, there are also many stray cats on the roofs. If the cats here die, they will take over,” Yến tells me.

A cat trap in its natural habitat.

Traumatized by the collective passing of their friends, the surviving cats retreated to the building's deepest nooks and crannies, making it difficult to rehome them. Only around 10 managed to escape death, but many of them will face a future full of hardships, even though they were rescued by kind Saigoneers.

Saved by an animal shelter, but is the work done?

“I have a default mindset before going in, knowing that they might not make it.”

From 151 Đồng Khởi, the cats who survived were received by Team16 in hopes to find loving homes for them. Established after another animal welfare crisis a while ago, Team16 is a grassroots nonprofit that operates “group homes” for unfortunate cats and dogs in Đà Nẵng, Hanoi, and Saigon.

“For sure, nearly every animal we rescue is sick with something! Blood parasites, feline infectious enteritis, feline infectious peritonitis, even amebiasis,” Quyên, head of the Saigon team, says of the strays’ health. “They are all highly fatal diseases, I know going in that they might not make it.”

Existing as a supposed stop before finding a forever home, shelters like Team16 tend to end up being the forever home for many strays. Elderly cats and those with matted fur, or deformed limbs rarely catch the eyes of adopters. According to Quyên, in the shelter’s one year of operation, only 10 managed to find new homes, amounting to less than a quarter of the intake. When we arrived for a visit, there were some tiny kittens just a few weeks old, shivering under heating lamps.

A kitten that was rescued recently.

Following a belief that “things should go in accordance with nature,” many Vietnamese don’t want to neuter their pets. A sexually mature female cat can deliver 2–3 litters a year, and not all owners have the humanity or resources to take care of every kitten instead of throwing them away. Widespread unplanned procreation has resulted in an exponential increase in stray cats that shelters have to rescue and care for. Thus, in the tiny 40-square-meter space of Team16 Saigon, many cats and dogs have to live together, sharing every surface, every litter box.

An apartment unit is clearly not an ideal location to host this many animals, but for many unofficial shelters with limited resources like Team16, this is their reality. Every month, the rent, the cost of food, cat litter, and veterinarian fees always keep their finances in the red.

The operation of shelters like Team16 relies heavily on donations, which could come in the form of pet food or money. Still, no matter how full the reserve is, it never stays that way for long. It only takes an infectious flare-up or one sack of kittens at their door for the surplus to quickly go into vaccination fees and vet treatments costing millions of đồng.

Finance is one thing, but caretakers must also sacrifice a lot of their own resources. For Quyên, running the shelter is a full-time job demanding all of her time and energy. It begins at 6am and ends late into the evening; sleepless nights are commonplace.

“Every cat rescue trip is a challenge. Sometimes we have to wait hours, climb, sprawl on the ground, use nets, our hands, using every means possible to get the cat home. My body is often full of scratches after a trip [...] There are also periods when I have to be available 24/7, because kittens can have sudden drops in body temperature. We try to close our eyes for 1–2 hours, but don’t dare to sleep, we’re afraid to wake up finding them dead.”

Like most people-run animal shelters, this kind of work is unpaid, but because of the label “rescue center,” some people assume the volunteers should be responsible for all situations brought to them.

Adult cats at Team16.

“When they see a stray cat on the street, some people just take some pictures and write a random Facebook post, and they complain when we can’t rescue it. Actually, everyone can take the initiative by bringing the cat home, taking them to the vet, doing as much as they can before pushing the work on shelters that are already looking after hundreds of other animals,” Quyên says.

Even with the hardships and annoyances, Quyên always tries to fill the tasks at the group home to the best of her ability. She believes that, while there are many animals out there going through abuse, starvation, extreme weather, at least the cats and dogs here have already been rescued. “They have enough food, wet food, kibbles, and they are healthy,” she explains. “Watching them play, doing crazy shits like this, it makes me happy.”

Still, Quyên reiterates that the ultimate home for the rambunctious bunch of furry friends frolicking around us is not an “orphanage” like this, but the loving arms of a family.

What to do to ensure that Saigon is no longer a town of strays?

“The owner doesn’t need to be rich, they just need to really love and be responsible for them.”

In the discourse surrounding animal rescue and welfare, we tend to center the conversation on activists like Yến and Quyên, who are the ones taking action and spending significant efforts to give stray animals a better life. However, members of the public can also play a crucial role in turning our hometown into a better living environment for every creature.

An example of one such person is the security guard at 151 Đồng Khởi, who decided to take in two kittens from Yến, after his usual feline friend died in the poisoning. With two bowls of fresh water, some kibble, and a ball he made from scrap paper that they could play with, he has turned a harrowing ground into a happy home for cats, as it once was and has always been. Those people could be the sweet ladies I met at the Tân Định Veterinarian Office — they go to the same temple and both adopted cats from a kind-hearted monk who rescued local strays. Their kitties were carried in shopping bags like toddlers.

Two kittens were adopted by the security guard at 151 Đồng Khởi.

Of course, legal frameworks and state-sanctioned animal control programs are the ultimate solutions that are sustainable in the long run. But at the moment, Saigon has engaged in no such discussions, and there are other apartments like Đồng Khởi that are ticking time bombs just waiting for a tragedy to spring up from brewing conflicts between pets, pet owners, their neighbors, and the buildings’ management.

In the meantime, what actions can be taken to help out?

For Nguyên Anh, providing support means opening up for more love. Not long ago, she adopted Xám, another survivor from the poisoning, from Team16. “I was really unsure because I am already keeping two [cats], but my emotions at the time were very powerful,” she explains.

Xám, who was lucky enough to escape the dire situation, now has a loving home.

“At the time I didn’t pick any specific cat, I just told them that I wanted to leave it to fate. Then, they sent me a photo of a bony, blemished, gray cat,” she recalls. From a sickly, worm-infested stray boy scavenging for food scraps, Xám became the youngest in a family of three.

“Xám has really bonded with his siblings. He’s quite shy, if his sister is sleeping somewhere, he will try to get close, but he doesn’t show much affection. Lately, he’s getting more handsome, with silkier fur, and a bright face. He hides less and is less afraid of humans.”

Heart-breaking incidents like 151 Đồng Khởi will recur as long as humans continue to exercise their privilege to execute animals when they no longer serve a purpose, but there are ways animal lovers can help shift popular beliefs.

“What the community can do right now is speak up more, so the awareness has a chance to spread, so we can cultivate more good deeds in our society. Everyone can form their own rescue center at home to save unfortunate animals they encounter. That’s the only thing I know to do.”

Perhaps, if each of us can do one small thing like that, at the end of their existence on Earth, each cat — stray or pet — will have been happy and loved.

Dedicated to Noir and Muối Tiêu, the loves of Uyên Đỗ’s life. Graphics by Hannah Hoàng, Mỡ’s mum.

Readers can provide assistance to the operation of Team16 through their Facebook page here.

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