by Kirsten Han
It’s late on a Friday night, close to closing time for most of the shops and restaurants in the area. Outside the Harbourfront Centre, a video is still playing on the big screen at the Singapore Heritage Festival, but the stalls have already begun winding down and packing up. Double-decker buses are roaring up the road to the bus stops, taking weary commuters home.
The sound of biscuits rattling in a plastic container rises briefly amid all this bustle. A woman is walking along the road, shaking a bottle and ducking down to peer among the leafy bushes along the pavement. “Leng Leng! Ah Leng!”
This is how 58-year-old Grace Tan has been spending her nights for the past two weeks. She travels from her home in Marine Terrace near Singapore’s east coast to Harbourfront in the south, walking up and down the pavements, checking in shrubs and bushes and among trees, calling over and over again for her cats.
The disappearance of Ben Ben and Leng Leng
On 8 March 2019, Tan returned to her rental flat in Marine Terrace after her part-time job to discover that two of her cats, Ben Ben and Leng Leng, were missing, along with a cage that she used for her cat rescue work and kept outside her flat. She says the Marine Parade Town Council had at first claimed that they’d only taken her cage but not the cats, and had not been responsive despite almost daily visits to the office.
It was only on 14 March—after Tan had attended a Meet-The-People’s Session and met Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, the night before—that the town council acknowledged that they’d taken Ben Ben and Leng Leng.
“They said they didn’t know which company the town council had asked to trap the cats,” Tan tells The Online Citizen. The town council officer promised that they would check for that information.
Tan says that when she returned to the town council office with a friend on 18 March (Monday), they were met by a man who told her that he had saved her cats by moving them to a safe place.
“I said, ‘If you want to, you give the cats to AVA, you have no right to take my cats.’ He said he was saving my cats; if he had handed the cats to AVA, they would have died in a few days,” Tan recounts in Mandarin.
“I said, ‘Don’t talk to me about dying or not dying… the place that you’ve brought them to could be very dangerous.’ He said it wasn’t. He kept insisting it wasn’t.” He didn’t tell her where he’d left Ben Ben and Leng Leng.
With the help of the Cat Welfare Society, Tan finally managed to wrangle the last known whereabouts of her cats out of the town council: the two four-year-old felines had been left in Harbourfront, near the Seah Im Food Centre.
“I didn’t ask anything more, I just got into a taxi and rushed over,” Tan says, adding that she broke down when she first set eyes upon the forested area where the cats had apparently been relocated. The dense foliage, the car park near Marang Road, and the bus shelter behind the food centre were so different from the world Ben Ben and Leng Leng—two cats who lived in and around a HDB flat, high above ground level—have known.
“When I saw the hill, the forest, I broke down. I was really crying. I felt such heartache seeing that place… I felt then that it would be really hard for my two kids to come home.” The two cats had been missing for 10 days by this point.
With help from her friends, Tan searched the area until the early hours of the next morning, putting up posters with photos of the two felines. She says that, at about three or four in the morning, she met a Bangladeshi migrant worker who said he’d seen Ben Ben two days prior, standing near the dumpsters on the opposite side of the food centre from where the town council said the cats had been left.
Tan says the worker described Ben Ben as looking lost, standing next to the flight of stairs that brought pedestrians down the hill to street level. The next time he’d looked back, the cat was gone.
Tan’s heart sank. Back in Marine Terrace, Ben Ben lived in her flat with 11 other cats (including Leng Leng), but liked to wander out of the flat from time to time and go upstairs to visit a neighbour who played with him. Tan would stand in the stairwell and call for him; he would then run down the stairs and come home. Seeing the stairs by the food centre, Tan could guess what her precious pet had wanted to do.
“I knew it was bad, because Ben Ben was going to try to walk home. He was going to walk home. My Ah Ben really wanted to go home. But he couldn’t get home, he really couldn’t get home.” Tan begins to cry.
Ben Ben goes home
Seeing her anxiety and fear, Tan’s friends pitched in to help, volunteering their time and energy to help her comb the streets, put up posters and post appeals on social media. On 27 March—almost three weeks after the cats’ disappearance—a woman called Tan’s partner with bad news: she’d seen the carcass of a cat that looked like Ben Ben.
“My boyfriend had to go to the hospital that day for a check-up. He broke down too… his hand was shaking as he held the phone. He was really upset. He was afraid it was Ben Ben. When I saw him, I started to cry,” Tan recalls.
The woman had been on her way to work. By the time she spoke to Tan on the phone, half an hour had already passed. Tan rushed to get a taxi to Harbourfront right away. “I’m a Buddhist so I prayed to Guanyin, ‘You have to leave Ah Ben to me. You have to keep my child there and watch over him, let him wait for me. You can’t let people take him away.’”
When Tan arrived, she saw the carcass lying on the grass by the pavement and recognised it right away. Ben Ben—the cat she had jumped into a storm drain to rescue when he was just a few months old—was dead.
The search for Leng Leng
Nothing more can be done for Ben Ben, but the search for Leng Leng continues. Tan is doing her best to hold on to hope.
“You know, when I brought Ben Ben home on the 27th, I asked him to accompany me for a day before I sent him off. I spoke to him until 1am or 2am,” she says, her voice cracking as she speaks.
“I told him, ‘Ben Ben, Mummy’s heart really aches. But now you are back, Mummy is happy to see you again. Can you tell Mummy where Leng Leng is now? Can you tell me where to go and bring Leng Leng home? Can you let me dream of her?’ And I really dreamt of Leng Leng… I was dozing off and I saw Leng Leng. She was sitting somewhere high up. But it was so quick; I tried to call her and she was gone. I opened my eyes and I said, ‘Ben Ben, I saw Leng Leng, but I really don’t know where she is.’”
On that Friday night, six other people help Tan with the search. Someone had called to say that they’d seen a white cat in the area, but no one’s spotted anything so far. They’d put up 200 posters before, but they’ve all since been torn down.
“Whether she’s alive or dead, I have to bring her home,” Tan insists. “It hurts to think about it. With Ben Ben I brought his ashes home with me, so it feels like he’s always by my side.”
The media coverage
Unable to speak or read English, Tan hasn’t seen much of the coverage in outlets like Mothership.sg or The Straits Times, nor has she spoken at length to many reporters. But she disputes the Marine Parade Town Council’s statement that around 15 cats “were left roaming freely within the block, causing dis-amenities and hygiene-issues such as cats defecating/urinating, fur shedding, caterwauling, etc, at the common corridor, staircases and lift lobbies.”
“There are sometimes two or three who will go out. When I sit in the corridor outside, when I talk on the phone outside, they’ll keep me company,” she says. “It’s not possible for more than 10 of them to be outside. Some of them, even if the door is open, they refuse to go out. They’re afraid.”
Tan has been feeding and rescuing cats for over a decade. The cats she keeps at home are those who were injured or sick when she found them, and are no longer fit to live as free-roaming community cats. Apart from them, she feeds the strays in her neighbourhood twice a day, like clockwork.
This has sometimes sparked the ire of some of her neighbours, especially those who don’t like cats very much. Tan says she’s been shouted at or verbally abused by some people in the neighbourhood, and that any sign of cats behaving badly—be it yowling, pooping in public, or fighting—are blamed on her pets.
According to Tan, officers from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) had visited her home twice last year—they’d inspected her premises and looked at her cats, but had ultimately left without saying anything.
“They said, ‘Okay, your cats are all well taken care of. There’s no smell, it doesn’t stink.’ So they just left,” she says. “They said not to let them out, but I said that they only go out once in awhile, and they said okay and left.”
After the news about Ben Ben became public, AVA had visited her again, interviewing her extensively. She told them that all her cats are sterilised and microchipped, with all the necessary vaccinations.
The Online Citizen has reached out to AVA by email, but have not received a response at press time.
On its website, the Cat Welfare Society urges all pet owners to keep their cats strictly indoors, so as to be safe from abuse, fighting, and problems with neighbours.
Accountability and animal cruelty
“I’ve given so much [to care for animals] and they’ve come and taken away my cats,” Tan says. “I’ve protected the cats so much, up to this point, and [the town council] just came and did this. What is the point of everything I’ve done? What have I done so much for?”
She’s acutely aware of the possibility that Ben Ben might not have died if the town council had been open with her about their removal and relocation from the beginning. “We would have brought him home [then]. That’s why I feel so hurt.”
In their comment to the media, the Marine Parade Town Council apologised “on behalf of our staff who has made the misjudgement of relocating the two cats that were found roaming in the block. The cats should have been sent to AVA.”
Sending cats on to AVA carries its own risks; many animals who end up in AVA’s hands are put to sleep. In 2015, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said that nearly 2,500 animals (942 dogs, 888 cats and 623 monkeys) had been euthanised. While it is possible for animals to be bailed out of AVA—a process that many cat rescuers are now familiar with—one has to move fast, as the animals are often put to sleep within a week.
Against these odds, relocation might seem like a more attractive option. But dumping animals—especially those who have been largely domesticated—in unfamiliar environments, where they are left stressed, terrified and likely unable to find food and water, can also be a death sentence.
The Online Citizen has sent follow-up questions to MPTC. We asked about the delay in informing Tan about her cats’ whereabouts, whether other cats have been similarly relocated, whether the town council will be taking action against the pest control company or individual who had relocated the cats, and whether the town council will be changing its policies with regard to trapping cats. As of press time, there has been no response.
“I don’t ask for much now,” Tan says. “I just want Leng Leng home, and the town council must hand over this murderer. I can’t just let Ben Ben and Leng Leng end like this, just taken away for no rhyme or reason.”