Utak at Pusa: The Cats and Dogs of UP Diliman

| Written by Celeste Ann Castillo Llaneta

Three of the resident feline "stress-busters" of the UP College of Mass Communication. Note their collars. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UP MPRO)
Three of the resident feline “stress-busters” of the UP College of Mass Communication. Note their collars. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UP MPRO)

 

Snowbell, a white cat as plump as she is sweet-natured, has been an unofficial mascot of the high school Practical Arts Pavilion of the UP Integrated School (UPIS). She even has her own Twitter account: UPIS Snowbell @pusaaa.

 

Snowbell, formerly of the UPIS Practical Arts Pavilion. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)
Snowbell, formerly of the UPIS Practical Arts Pavilion. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)

 

Other units in UP Diliman have their own mascots. Name any building, and it likely has at least one feline resident. Even the Balay Tsanselor has its own non-human animal occupants. UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan laughingly describes inheriting ten cats who live at the Balay, whom he now takes care of along with two dogs.

UP Journalism professor Khrysta Rara, who hosts a radio show on DZUP entitled “Kwentuhang Pets, Atbp.” and who founded the animal welfare organization Friends of Campus Animals (FOCA UP), notes that the term “stray” might actually be a misnomer when it comes to UP Diliman’s non-human animal residents.

“We call them ‘stray’ cats but they’re not actually stray because they live on campus. Many are residents of each college, fed and cared for by students, staff and faculty. That’s why we call them community cats. They’re part of the community.”

Although voiceless members of the UP community, the campus animals have made a difference in people’s lives. Rara collects stories of heartwarming encounters between the animals and humans of UP Diliman—stories of students, faculty and staff feeding the animals, rescuing them, and adopting them.

 

UP CMC’s Prof. Khrysta Rara and one of the dogs who visit Mass Comm. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)
UP CMC’s Prof. Khrysta Rara and one of the dogs who visit Mass Comm. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)

 

Animals helping humans

In many instances, though, it is the animals who help humans. At the College of Mass Communication, students take a break from the pressures of academic life by sitting with the cats for a while. This has led Rara to dub the cats “stress-busters.” Staff at UP dormitories have shared stories of students from distant provinces whose loneliness was eased by the presence of cats. There was even a foreign student who found it hard to connect with his classmates but would spend his evenings studying with the cats for company.

The beneficial effect of pets on mental health has been widely studied, and both Rara and Tan have seen the transformative effect of having an animal companion. Rara herself shares how Kit-Kat, the famous feline matriarch at the CMC who has been featured on Howie Severino’s documentary “Pusang Gala,” comforted her during the difficult time following the passing of her mother.

 

Prof. Rara with Kit-Kat, the matriarch of the UP CMC's resident cats. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UP MPRO)
Prof. Rara with Kit-Kat, the matriarch of the UP CMC’s resident cats. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UP MPRO)

 

Tan has also noted the effectiveness of therapy from dogs in easing the symptoms of mental illness, anxiety and stress—at least among people who like animals to begin with—which is why he is considering putting up a system of emotional support animals on campus, as is being done in universities abroad.

The campus animals also serve as companions for the staff and the security guards. Tan shares how the lady security guard assigned to the College of Science library building is particularly close to the alpha female who is the sole feline resident of the building. Sometimes, the bond between the animals and humans is so strong that the staff and security guards end up adopting the animals themselves, taking them to be vaccinated and spayed or neutered.

This is, of course, on top of the usual benefits of having animals, which is added security, pest control, and somewhat lesser known, as population control for other animals in the unit, since cats and dogs tend to be territorial and will drive away interlopers.

 

Nature abhors a vacuum

While there are benefits in having animals around, the uncontrolled population growth of animals does pose serious problems. Given that cats and dogs are territorial, putting too many of them together in one area stresses them out, which leads to fights and injuries. The humans also suffer—from poor hygiene from animal urine and feces; from the risk of the spread of diseases and parasites; and from the risk of bites and scratches. An uncontrolled population of cats and dogs also leads more people to view the animals as pests, which can lead to acts of cruelty that violate RA 8485, or The Animal Welfare Act of 1998.

Unit heads faced with an uncontrolled animal population usually resort to having the animals rounded up and taken to the pound, where at the end of a holding period, they are eventually put down.

This method, however, presents certain problems. Dr. Rey Oronan of the UP College of Veterinary Medicine Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, who is Faculty-in-Charge of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) in Diliman, describes it thus: “Once you remove the resident animals in an area and you transfer them to a different place, you are creating a cycle. The resident animals have been removed, so a new batch will come in. Then the place you’ve relocated the animals to will also have a problem, since the number of animals in that area has increased. The other thing is, the animals aren’t really relocated. The pound, for one, is mandated to euthanize the animals.”

“The evidence is very clear that the wrong approach is to gather the animals and exterminate them, which is still the dominant thinking,” explains Tan. “Anyone with good training in biology should know that in ecology, Nature does not like vacuums. If you want total extermination, you would have to kill all the animals and you cannot do that. Not just from a humane point of view. It’s also impossible.”

 

Dr. Rey Oronan, Faculty-in-Charge of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at UP Diliman, speaking to the vet-students working in the clinic. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)
Dr. Rey Oronan, Faculty-in-Charge of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at UP Diliman, speaking to the vet-students working in the clinic. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)

 

Especially not in UP Diliman, an extremely porous community with two distinct aspects. It is, first and foremost, an academic community. But where there are people, there are dogs and cats, and UP Diliman is surrounded by residential areas. The campus has around 70,000 residents by Tan’s count, and a conservative estimate of 7,000 dogs. The cats number even more than that, since dogs give birth only twice a year, while cats give birth four times a year.

 

Findings on TNVR on UP Diliman Chancellor Tan’s desk. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)
Findings on TNVR on UP Diliman Chancellor Tan’s desk. (Photo by Celeste Llaneta, UPMPRO)

 

Trap-neuter-vaccinate-return

The ideal is for all the animals to have proper homes and responsible owners. Given the realities though, the best option is the “TNVR,” or trap-neuter-vaccinate-return program, the internationally accepted and most effective method of controlling animal populations. This entails humanely trapping the animals, spaying or neutering them, having them vaccinated for rabies and other diseases, ear-tipping them to mark them as spayed/neutered and vaccinated, and returning them to the places they were found.

TNVR is what Rara, other like-minded UP faculty, and the student-members of FOCA UP have been doing for the past few years. With help from Dr. Jonathan Anticamara of the Institute of Biology and his highly-trained team, the cats are counted and humanely trapped and with Oronan and the other veterenarians at the VTH performing the spaying/neutering procedures and vaccinations at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, FOCA UP has succeeded in spaying and neutering more than 300 cats and dogs in the campus since 2016 and returning them to their home units. CARA Welfare Philippines has also helped them by neutering more than 30 cats for free while the International Wildlife Coalition Trust has neutered more than a hundred cats and dogs. The Philippine Pet Birth Control Center Foundation has also fixed around 30 cats.

Anticamara has also been doing a population count of all the cats and dogs in the campus, while two other UP Diliman professors—Prof. Gregorio del Pilar of the College of Social Sciences and Philosophy and Prof. Ibay Sicam of the College of Architecture—are doing research on the campus cats.

Animal-loving UP students also initiated Utak at Pusa: Iskolars ng Bayan supporting TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) Operations in Diliman to help control the campus’ cat population in a humane way. A flagship project of FOCA UP, Utak at Pusa aims to raise awareness and rally support for the TNR project for UP Diliman’s cats, with students organizing rummage sales to raise funds for the medicines needed for the neutering surgeries, which Oronan does as a service to UP. Their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/utakatpusa, has over 4,600 followers and welcomes more.

 

FOCA student-volunteers help the cats relax during the Aug. 19 FOCA/IWCT neutering activity. (Photo by Khrysta Rara)

FOCA student-volunteers help the cats relax during the Aug. 19 FOCA/IWCT neutering activity. (Photo by Khrysta Rara)
FOCA student-volunteers help the cats relax during the Aug. 19 FOCA/IWCT neutering activity. (Photo by Khrysta Rara)

 

 Six dogs were neutered from the UPDP during the Aug. 19 FOCA/IWCT neutering activity at the Institute of Biology. Photo by Khrysta Rara
Six dogs were neutered from the UPDP during the Aug. 19 FOCA/IWCT neutering activity at the Institute of Biology. (Photo by Khrysta Rara)

 

TNVR is Tan’s preferred method of dealing with campus animals because nothing else works.

“We will not of course go with extermination, but if a unit does not want to go into a TNVR program, they have the option to have the animals rounded up, and we will try to look for homes for them. But we will monitor this, because our prediction is those units will keep calling us to round up the animals because the problem will never end. Then we will show that with TNVR, the population will be stabilized, the animals will become healthier, and there will be better relations between the humans and animals.”

In a way, Snowbell is luckier than most. She was among the UPIS cats recently rounded up by the Office of Community Relations. She has been adopted, though, and has found a new home, albeit one much quieter than the bustling school she has known.

With any luck, she might tweet about it very soon.