Like many a card-carrying cat lover, I’m friends with the stray kitties that live around my block of flats. There’s the friendly ginger living among the bicycle racks, who loves rolling over for belly rubs. Then there’s the well-fed tuxie who turns up his nose at kibble, and the skittish black one who only appears past midnight to sit and gaze out on the road.
But there are cat lovers, and then there are cat people – those who devote incredible amounts of time, energy, and money to care for our community kitties. It’s this latter group of superheroes whom Rob Fruchtman and Steven Lawrence spotlight in their New York-based documentary, The Cat Rescuers.
Winner of the Zelda Panzel Giving Voice to the Voiceless Award, this film takes us into Brooklyn’s feline-filled underbelly with four volunteers who, rain or snow, come at the call to help sick, pregnant, or malnourished cats. It’s a film that spurs us on to do more for our vulnerable feline friends – shadowed by the heart-rending sense that we can never do enough.
Singapore’s streets today teem with 50,000 abandoned and feral cats; in New York, it’s at least 500,000. This feline crisis is what drives legal investigator Sassee to spend hours in her car, waiting to trap strays for neutering and vet care (Trap-Neuter-Release, as it’s frequently known). It’s an arduous if amusing battle of wits – Sassee has an ingenious range of tricks up her sleeve, but the wily cats learn fast and some elude her for months.
Other portraits of the cat rescuers’ daily lives are just as awe-inspiring. Sweet-natured nurse Tara credits her first pair of kittens with saving her life and, in return, now fills her home with up to 30 foster felines. Then there’s electronics engineer Stu, who spends hundreds a month on cat food and hits the streets at 5am to feed his small army of kitties.
Aside from the heroics of these big-hearted souls, though, what makes this film so compelling is its willingness to confront the heartbreaking question: where do you draw the line? For space and time are painfully finite things, and (like most of us ordinary folks) other priorities are always knocking on the door. Claire, who regularly trawls the kill list of NYC’s Animal Care Centers and fosters as many as she can in her basement, knows this all too well. Unlike the other cat rescuers, Claire has a spouse who isn’t the biggest cat fan, and we get raw glimpses into their conflicted desire to have a normal family life.
This dilemma plays out in the overcrowded Care Centers as well, where family after family shuffles in to give up their beloved pets. It might be easy to condemn them, but the film gives them a chance to open up about their often sympathetic reasons, and there’s no questioning the distress on their faces as they’re warned that unadopted cats will have to be euthanised. With an endless stream of cats in need and only a trickle of resources, the shelters themselves, too, cannot save them all.
From wee-hour treks through underbrush and back alleys, to intimate scenes of the rescuers’ passions and griefs, this film lays bare the seldom-seen world of cats and their people. It’s certainly a must-watch for those of us who love these vulnerable little critters. After all, Singapore has its fair share of forgotten felines, many at risk of abuse and starvation – but also a growing ecosystem of cat carers. Perhaps it’s time we lend a paw.