Namibia’s feline menace

By Lahja Nashuuta

IT IS not often that the existence of stray and feral cats is considered a national issue nor are cats debated at national level.

But Namibia has joined those countries where cats become part of national news and, no, it has nothing to do with a cat being stuck in a tree or on the eleventh floor of a burning apartment building.

In Namibia, the cat debate centres around the presence of an uncontrollable cat population at state hospitals, school hostels, shopping malls and restaurants.

So significant is the situation that the Namibian government advertised, two weeks ago, a tender for the removal of feral and stray cats at Rundu Intermediate Hospital, situated in the north-eastern part of Namibia.

The advert too caused public debate on social media. But the government is experiencing liquidity pressures and has been forced to freeze a significant number of capital and developmental projects to save money. The issuance of a contract to remove cats at hospital then becomes a highly prioritised programme in the Ministry of Health and Social Services.

‘Redbags’ cats

Before the health ministry issued the tender for the removal of stray and feral cats at the Rundu hospital, national media had been reporting about the nuisance feral cats caused at state hospitals for about a decade now. Some of the headlines read: ‘Feral Cats at Oshakati Hospital’, ‘Rundu State Hospital swamped with stray cats’, and ‘Human flesh attracts cats’.

The later headline dealt with a situation where the management of the biggest public hospital in the country, the Windhoek Central Hospital, was forced to lock medical waste bags containing amputated body parts in cages, while waiting to be incinerated. This came about because feral cats breeding on hospital grounds would enter hospital storage areas and feed on the human body parts, which are kept in red plastic medical waste bags. The hospital management also had to call in the state veterinarian after some cats became hostile when being chased from feeding off human flesh. The hospital management then named this category of cats as “Redbags”. The ‘Redbags’ have colonies in the hospital’s underground drainage systems and are considered more daring than the tamer stray cats, which have also become residents of the hospital nurses’ homes and doctors’ quarters.

Health hazard?

Generally, members of the public, who complain about the presence of feral cats in hospitals, are mostly concerned about the potential health risks that come with animals that are not vaccinated for rabies and other communicable diseases. Other complaints centre around the nuisance caused by the cats and the inconvenience of cats roaming hospital corridors at night and at times finding comfort and curling up on hospital beds occupied by patients. While some are seen scavenging for food in hospitals.

Although it has been medically proven that feral cats hardly transmit diseases to humans, the fear remains that their free-roaming might make them a source of transmission of other organisms that might pose health risks.

For instance, doctors and nurses seem to have made peace with the nightly wailing of wild cats fighting in the corridors of their residencies at Katutura State Hospital.

“I don’t feel safe with these cats around, sometimes we find them lying on our beds, especially at night when it’s a bit cold. No one knows where they come from and whether they are fit to be around people” said a patient, at a Windhoek hospital, who only wanted to be identified as Anna.

“You won’t leave your food stuffs here, because when you wake up it’s gone. It sounds like these cats are not into rats and mice. There are lots of rats running around here at night but those cats are not catching them,” another patient stressed.

State veterinarian in the Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry, Dr Alec Bishi, has in the past warned that these cats could pose a health hazard, as they are susceptible to rabies and can transmit it to humans, although it is not common.

Bishi has encouraged hospital management and other institutions like school hostels to institute proper practices such properly discarding food leftovers.

Animal rights ire

Despite the government’s efforts to cull the cat population, animal rights activists have described the issuance of a tender for capturing and disposal of feral and stray cats as unlawful and does not comply with the law.

Sylvia Breitenstein, Windhoek branch manager of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) argues that the Animal Protection Act of 1962, prohibits all deliberate acts of cruelty or negligence perpetrated on animals.

“The tender issues mention the word disposal, which is against Namibia Animals Protection Act. According to this law, no one is allowed to dispose a living being, but rather take it to vet and animals shelters where there are safe and humane ways to trap them,” she told The Southern Times.

Breitenstein recalled cases where cats and kittens were subjected to cruelty. She highlighted instances of cats and kittens being tied to trees, being bundled in refuse plastic bags and thrown into garbage bins.

“Litters of kittens are dumped at cemeteries and many are simply thrown into riverbeds to fend for themselves which is against the law,” she said.

The non-profit organisation that advances the plight of animals believes that feral cats deserve caretaking just as much as the domestic cats.

Breitenstein stressed the proliferation of wild cats is the result of human failure, especially by owners to sterilise their pets.

Getting rid of feral cats is a process that requires a prior situational assessment and research before issuing the tender.

“I strongly believe there is a need to invest in research that will determine the best way to deal with feral cats. You don’t need to capture all cats out there, because then the hospital will start having problem with mice and rats that are more harmful to human health than cats” he said.

“We need to find out how many cats are in the colonies, how many can be sterilised, vaccinated for rabies and put them back as well as how to come up with mechanisms that will prevent them return.

“If a colony is removed, feral cats from surrounding colonies may move in to take advantage of the newly available resources, and the cycle of reproduction and nuisance behaviour begins all over again”.

SPCA advocates for the Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) concept, which is supported by most animal care organisations.

TNR is a system through which free-roaming cats are humanely trapped, sterilised and medically treated and returned to the outdoor locations where they were found.

“This concept helps improve the health and quality of life of feral cats and prevent more from being born into this dangerous and difficult existence” said the SPCA official.

Breitenstein said although the ministry of health has instructed those interested in tendering to consult SPCA, it failed to consult them on what requirements they need to look at.

“I am happy that they directed people to consult us, however, the ministry did not approach us yet to inform us on how to go about it” she said.

Meanwhile, SPCA is encouraging people sterilise “your own cats to prevent them mating, often resulting in unwanted and abandoned kittens as well as to act as a caretaker by providing food and/or shelter, monitoring the cats for problems and trapping new cats that arrive”.

The SPCA, the Cat Protection Society and government were unable to furnish The Southern Times with the exact or estimated population of feral cats in Namibia.

Asian urban legends and local superstition

A number of myths or legends about cats and Namibian residents of Asian descent have been doing the rounds in the country. For example, when the tender was first publicised, some people joked that all the authorities need to do is to ensure there is a Chinese construction site near Rundu Hospital that way all the cats will disappear. Legend has it that the Oshakati State Hospital’s cat woes were solved when a Chinese company was contracted to build on the hospital grounds while its employees were living on site. This myth might have been cemented by the number of cats found in cages when the Ramatex garment factory closed down in Windhoek about 10 years ago. The factory used to employ a significant number of Asian factory workers and when they left, the cats were found at their living quarters, fuelling the belief that Asians eat cats.

Locally, many Namibian cultures link cats to witchcraft and are either traumatised by the cats or they simply just treat cats, especially stray cats, with cruelty.

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