When Caesar was a baby he was left to die in the street, and his diseased eyes had to be surgically removed. The friend he was found with didn’t survive. Now the long-haired white cat loves affection and falls asleep in strangers’ arms. He lives at one of two shelters in central Seoul run by the animal protection NGO Nabiya (officially the Nabiya Saranghae Association, Inc.).
Mandu was abandoned with his pregnant friend Yeoni, who gave birth to Jini at the shelter. Jini and Yeoni are silver and white beauties, and all three cats look like expensive purebreds. Nabiya chief director Yu Juyun, who lives at the shelter with them, said a man had dumped Yeoni and Mandu outside his home in a box. When a concerned neighbour passed by, the man said he didn’t want them because he was getting a dog.
It was my first visit to the new shelter and my second interview with Yu, who updated me on the NGO’s activities since we last spoke six or seven years ago. We were there with Cody Yoshizawa, one of Nabiya’s main volunteers. For the past three years Yoshizawa has been raising funds for Nabiya and arranging adoptions and foster homes. An English teacher who works at a public elementary school east of Seoul, he visits the cats every weekend.
This past Saturday we met near Samgakji Station and Yoshizawa introduced Mariel Zuchniak, an English teacher based in Yeongju, North Gyeongsang Province, who described herself as a “lifer” in Korea. Zuchniak had already rescued a stray cat, Bear, and was hoping to foster a second cat. She showed me Bear’s picture on her phone and said she was redecorating her apartment so he’d have more climbing areas.
First we visited the small grooming and boarding facility that Nabiya operates, and Yoshizawa pointed out several cats the charity had rescued from a hoarder—a mentally ill man who kept unmanageable numbers of cats in filthy conditions and never socialized the kittens.
After a few minutes in the grooming shop, we walked together to Nabiya’s shelter. The one we visited holds adoptable cats; the charity also has an older shelter that offers lifetime care. Some of the cats at the old shelter are very unsocial, Yoshizawa said. Others are friendly in the shelter but couldn’t adapt to a home environment. As soon as they were back in the shelter, he said, “they were tame again.”
Yoshizawa introduced me and Zuchniak to Caesar, Yeoni, Mandu and Jini; a few other cats approached as we were talking, asking to be petted. Zuchniak found a toy and played with the cats. Eventually she decided to foster Geumbi, an orange and white cat who was curled up in another room.
I knew from our earlier conversation that Yu had been rescuing cats since 2003, when she returned to Korea after 11 years abroad and found two stray cats living on her roof. She didn’t come from a family of cat lovers—her parents and even her husband disliked cats. After asking for help online, she began practicing trap-neuter-return to reduce conflicts between stray cats and humans, and to keep their population under control. All the funds came out of her own pocket.
Yu co-founded Nabiya with Hong Sung-mi in May 2007. As they began rescuing more cats, eventually they needed space to care for cats with no survival skills. They never expected their TNR project to grow as big as it did, and it wasn’t until last year that Nabiya obtained official NGO status. (Hong left Nabiya in 2013 to found her own rescue: “CATS, Whiskers Ministop.”)
Feral cats are born in the wild and descended from lost or abandoned house cats. Most are afraid of humans, and are difficult to tame after about 10 weeks of age. Before TNR became popular, stray cats were usually killed in government pounds to control the population. In part because of citizen-led TNR programs like Nabiya’s, city governments around the world are realizing that TNR is a humane and effective way of controlling stray cat populations. Now there are municipally funded TNR programs throughout Seoul, Yu said, but services are lacking in other parts of the country.
And even in Seoul, problems remain: several years ago when the first TNR projects were put in place, Yu said cats died as a result of substandard postoperative care. Now some “cat moms” (volunteers who feed feral cats) are reluctant to sterilize the animals they feed and won’t even attend meetings to discuss the problem. As a result, she said, too few strays are sterilized to make a dent in the population.
Since our earlier conversation, Nabiya’s work has expanded. In addition to its TNR program, the group now cares for about 70 cats at its two shelters, in foster homes, and at its boarding and grooming facility. More than 400 cats have found homes during that time, Yu said, but others have died in the shelters—some from age-related illnesses and some from the viral disease feline infectious peritonitis. Nabiya’s most urgent needs right now are donations and foster homes. Volunteer opportunities are available, but volunteers have to be prepared to work hard and get dirty.
Nabiya has changed Yu’s life—she quit her job as a store manager to spend more time with the cats and now runs a restaurant, but said it will probably have to close because the cats are demanding more of her time.
Both Yu and Yoshizawa are absolutely opposed to breeding animals and reject the notion that there is such a thing as a “responsible” breeder. People who think breeding is acceptable should live inside a “kill shelter” for a while, Yoshizawa suggested. Yu asked why anyone would need a breeder when there are so many homeless animals to adopt.
Yoshizawa, who is from Hawaii, has been in Korea for eight years but said he wasted his first few years in the country because he was “blinded.” He spent most of his time going to gyms and eating what he thought was a healthy diet, but he realizes now that he doesn’t need animal products to be healthy. Initially he felt sorry for dogs who were killed for “meat,” but eventually he asked himself, “What’s the difference?” and went vegan.
Although TNR is gaining greater acceptance, there are still some critics who think cats are better off dead than living in the streets. When asked how she would respond to such criticism, Yu said she couldn’t understand the thinking.
“I’m glad I never met any of those jerks,” she said.
During my visit to Nabiya, Yu and Yoshizawa also talked to me about Project Hope—a collaborative effort involving Nabiya, another animal charity and some local vets. I will write more about Project Hope in a future blog post. Please contact Yoshizawa at email@example.com with adoption inquiries. Many thanks to Nabiya for permission to reproduce this beautiful picture of Caesar, taken by volunteer Irina Bondar.